Tag Archives: Gabriel

15 – 8

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It took several hours for Sherwin to find her. Not that there were all that many places in Manor Leduc where one could safely go without risking a fall through the rotted floorboards; it simply took him that long to go looking. He had been very much preoccupied.

“Ah, there you are,” Natchua said as he stepped into the room, not looking up. She was inscribing runes on the floor in living fire with movements of her hands, not troubling with chalk and powder. “Upright and hale, I see. Make sure to get plenty of fluids and don’t let her blindfold or tie you up. Not that Melaxyna will do you any actual harm, but a Vanislaad’s idea of fun gets abruptly less fun for everyone else the second they have you completely in their power.”

“I’ll, ah, bear that in mind,” Sherwin mumbled, adjusting his untucked shirt self-consciously as he crept into the room. “This was my… That is, this particular basement chamber…”

“Yes, I know, it was described to me in detail,” she replied. “Sorry I didn’t get to see it with all the holy symbols still installed. That sounds like quite a feat of magical engineering.”

“Right, well… Natchua, why are you summoning hobgoblins in my house?”

“Horogki,” she corrected. “The common name is pretty misleading, they’re more closely related to gnomes than goblins. And not to quibble, but I am banishing one.”

“Was it something I said?” wheedled the specimen in the circle around which she was conjuring runes. He, as well as the two other hobgoblins standing in similar containment circles farther back in the room, was a creature about four feet tall with scaly crimson skin and large ears, as well as orange eyes that glowed around slitted black pupils. Apart from that, they did very much resemble gnomes in build and stature. “I can change! I’m a versatile kinda guy! For you, baby, I can be anything.”

“Yeah, boss, give ‘im a chance!” called one of the others. “Just look how cute he is!”

The male upon whom Natchua was working grinned ingratiatingly, displaying a double row of unevenly jagged shark-like teeth.

“Sorry, no dice,” she said dispassionately, finishing the last lines of the banishing circle and adding a languid flick of her wrist. The central circle in which the hobgoblin stood was consumed by a momentary column of white fire, and then the whole thing was gone, demon and all.

“Awwww,” complained both the remaining two in unison.

“They…speak Tanglish,” Sherwin marveled. “Huh, usually only the smarter demons know mortal languages before summoning. Based on my reading, hob—I mean, horogki are considered basically vermin.”

“Hey, buddy, we can hear you talkin’, ya know,” huffed one of the two remaining demons.

“Genetic memory,” Natchua explained, already inscribing another summoning circle. “I am summoning specifically from a bloodline with prized engineering skills. The Tanglish is a nice bonus, one I wasn’t actually expecting.”

“Engineering skills,” he said, scowling. “I see. Would I be right in guessing that answers my question as to why you are summoning horogki?”

“Sherwin, this place is falling apart.”

“That is how I like it,” he said testily. “It ensures my privacy, which I should think you would particularly want while you’re staying here! You can’t just go fixing up a man’s ancestral home, Natchua.”

“I’m collecting three or four of them at most,” she said, then hesitated. “In fact, on reflection, just three. Believe me, I don’t intent to rebuild the whole place—that front entry hall that Scorn and Vadrieny smashed is probably going to have to stay that way. But honestly, Sherwin, aside from the little nest you’ve built in the kitchen, there’s nowhere in this manor that isn’t, at best, uncomfortably rugged. Most of it is actually dangerous. Horogki from a mechanically-inclined lineage are a better prospect than hiring contractors, in our particular situation.”

“Oooh!” One of the remaining horogki pressed herself forward against the barrier of her binding circle, not seeming to mind the way it sparked all over her. “That sounds like a challenge. Lemme at ‘er, boss!”

“Well, I suppose,” Sherwin muttered grudgingly. “What was wrong with that fellow, then?”

“He was male.”

“Uh…” He took a step backward, eyeing her warily. “Is this a drow thing, or…?”

“It’s the reason summoning them to this plane is so hazardous that even the Black Wreath won’t do it,” she said with a wry smile. “Two month gestation, four years to physical maturity, and genetic memory that ensures they’re born with a working knowledge of life, and a famously…excitable nature. At the rate they breed, horogki can overrun a kingdom in two decades. Hell is so dangerous that they die there at a phenomenal rate; on this plane, almost nothing can check their population except a deliberate and vigorous culling. They’ve been the cause of more Avenist crusades than Vanislaads. So, to ward off that particular problem, I am summoning only one sex.”

“You are no fun,” complained the other horogki. “You’re the living opposite of fun!”

“Get used to it,” Natchua said without sympathy.

“And, uh…any particular reason why females?” Sherwin asked.

“…huh.” She actually hesitated in her work for a second before continuing to scribe the summoning circle. “That is a drow thing, I suppose. Just the bias of my upbringing coming through. It shouldn’t make a difference which sex we use, practically speaking.”

“Ah, that’s a relief,” Sherwin said, grinning. “Y’know, often when a warlock goes out of their way to summon exclusively female demons, it’s because they have…intentions.”

She stopped again, this time turning to give him a long look over her shoulder. “Really, Sherwin?” Natchua turned back and made a show of eyeing the two hobgoblins over speculatively; one tilted her head in confusion while the other grinned and struck a pose. “Are you already bored with Melaxyna? Well, if they don’t mind, I guess I don’t.”

He flushed bright pink. “Now, that’s not what I—”

“I can’t say I would recommend it, though,” she added, resuming work on the circle. “We’re talking about creatures that have about four times a human’s upper body strength, teeth that can dent steel, and a notable lack of impulse control even when not in the throes of…anything that tends to lower the inhibitions. I didn’t take you for such a thrill-seeker.”

“I did not intend…” Sherwin broke off and cleared his throat, his face now fully red. “Uh, never mind that. What went wrong with your summons, then? I assume you didn’t intend to get a male that time.”

“Nothing went wrong, I expected to have to banish a few in the process; this is by nature a coin toss. I would expect you of all people to know that the only summoning spell with a gendered component is for Vanislaads. And really, even that one is only encoding information in the spell that tells them what kind of form to take to best beguile their prospective summoner.”

He blinked. “Wait, what? They’re male and female, aren’t they?”

“They’re shapeshifters, Sherwin,” she said, smirking. “With a noted tendency toward gender fluidity. It’s not known whether that results from the transformation process or Prince Vanislaas prefers to choose souls with that characteristic, but there it is.”

Sherwin blinked again, twice, and tilted his head in puzzlement. “Gender…fluidity? What does that mean?”

“Exactly what it sounds like,” she drawled. “It’s a surprisingly functional trait, in the case of Vanislaads. More than one has slipped the net because their pursuers failed to connect the incubus sighted in the next province over with the succubus they were chasing. It takes a nuanced understanding of stealth to properly leverage that, you know. What people don’t think to look for is just as invisible as what they literally cannot see.”

Sherwin swallowed heavily, his face now pale beneath its coat of stubble. “Um. Does that mean… That is, do you happen to know if Melaxyna…”

Natchua shrugged. “Does it really make a difference, for your purposes? You could ask her, if you’re awfully curious. I wouldn’t, personally. The children of Vanislaas are able to use that particular trait to their advantage because people don’t think about it. Might not be healthy to let one Vanislaad know you’ve been thinking along lines they would all rather you didn’t.”

“Hang on, now, you said you had her under control!”

She turned again to look at him.

“I mean…you know what I meant,” he exclaimed. “In the sense and to the extent that any succubus is ever under control.”

“Melaxyna won’t harm you, or anyone here,” Natchua assured him, turning back to her work. “But she won’t be here forever. Our contract prohibits her from setting anyone else after me or my allies once she’s dismissed, either. I can’t say for certain whether Vanislaad business qualifies under that protection if she decides a given warlock knows too much. They’re not very cooperative creatures as a rule, but…one never knows.”

“Omnu’s balls, you’re a troublesome houseguest,” he grumbled.

Natchua glanced back at him again, grinning. “Be honest, Sherwin. Am I really one whit more troublesome than you fully expected?”

He had to hesitate before answering that one, but then did so with a reluctant grin. “Okay, fair point.”

“So here’s where—hang on. What devilry are you up to this time, Natchua?” Jonathan Arquin demanded, stepping into the room and scowling at the two imprisoned hobgoblins.

“Hey there, cutie!” one called, waving exuberantly.

“It may not look it at first glance,” Sherwin said, “but apparently this is the first step in fixing this place up a little. How’re you settling in, Mr., uh…”

“Arquin,” he said, finally tearing his suspicious stare from the demons to his host. “Jonathan Arquin. It’s quite the, ah, charming home you have, Lord Leduc. I can tell it has a lot of historical value.”

“You can be frank with me, Mr. Arquin, I’m hard to offend,” Sherwin said with a rueful chuckle. “It’s a dump. Honestly, I like it that way. But then, I never expected to have company for any length of time, so…I suppose some repair is in order. Wouldn’t do for somebody to fall through the floor.”

“Okay, I’m getting really curious to poke around this place,” said one of the horogki.

“House Leduc were a rather infamous clan of warlocks, for a long time before being reduced to just Sherwin, here,” said Natchua. “This manor hid secrets of the most dangerous nature before falling into such disrepair that it may be unsafe to walk through. I’d advise against poking around, Jonathan.”

“Curiouser and curiouser!” chimed the second horogki.

“I was looking for you two, not poking around, and Melaxyna told me exactly where to look. You’ve got another guest, Lord Leduc. Someone who is asking specifically for you and Natchua.”

Natchua broke off her scribing and whirled to stare at him. “What? Me? By name?”

“Not by name, no,” Jonathan shook his head. “The lady did ask for the drow warlock, though. That’s a little too on the nose to be a coincidence.”

She turned a scowl on Sherwin. “Nobody outside this house should have the faintest clue where I am, Sherwin, unless you told someone!”

“Come on, Natchua,” he protested. “I literally don’t talk to people. You lot are the first company I’ve had in years. Even my supply deliveries are just left in the stableyard!”

“Well, my shadow-jumps are too good to be tracked, I can guarantee that. The only way anybody would have even spotted us coming in is if… Actually, I can’t even think of a way! Can you imagine how someone would have been monitoring your grounds through means beyond the current magical state of the art?”

“Oh, ssshhhhiit,” he groaned, suddenly clapping a hand over his eyes. “…all right, I know what this is. Come on, we’d better go face the music. And be nice, Natchua. This isn’t gonna be a situation for slinging power around.”

“Most situations aren’t,” Jonathan grunted. Natchua just swept past him, following Sherwin out into the hall and up the stone stairs to the kitchen.

“So, I guess we’ll just wait here then, shall we?” called one of the imprisoned hobgoblins as the three of them departed.

In the kitchen above were two unfamiliar women, one of whom was recognizable on second glance as Melaxyna, minus the wings and tail and with her unnatural coloration swapped out for a stereotypical Tiraan palette. She was sitting on the edge of Sherwin’s rumpled bed with her hair disheveled and a blanket strategically draped over just enough of herself to make it clear she had nothing else on, as though to make a deliberate statement of what she had been doing for the last couple of hours.

The other was tall, young, and as pretty as Melaxyna, a local fair-haired Stalweiss woman clad in a crimson evening gown with a high collar. It made her look aggressively out of place in the converted kitchen apartment, with its stereotypical bachelor mess strewn over every surface. She had taken up a position in the center of the floor, as far as possible from anything which might touch her dress.

“Lord Sherwin,” the new arrival said with a diplomatic smile that did not touch her eyes, turning toward the door as the three of them filed in. “Felicitations; I see you have finally acquired a succubus. Who is not secured in that cage you so laboriously constructed. Do you require a lecture on the unspeakable danger this creature poses to the entire city?”

“Sherwin, honey,” Melaxyna cooed, angling her body toward him and letting the blanket slip a few calculated inches, “who is this person, and may I please kill her?”

“No!” he shouted, waving his hands. “Do not! Any of you, trust me, killing her is not on the table. Best case scenario you’ll end up looking foolish; if you actually managed to harm her we’d all be in deep shit. Now what the hell do you want, Ruby? Or actually, I guess I should ask what the hand up your butt wants, since we both know you haven’t got a mind of your own.”

Ruby finished giving Natchua a long, thorough visual inspection before turning to him with another meaningless smile. “This is some extremely interesting company you are suddenly keeping, Lord Sherwin. Of course, my Lady would under ordinary circumstances not dream of meddling in your business to even the slightest degree. All this begins to look ominous, however. Need I explain why this kind of activity is of immediate concern to the governor of this province?”

“Governor?” Jonathan’s eyebrows shot upward. “This is starting to sound a whole lot less discreet than you described it, Natchua.”

The drow heaved a sigh. “Oh. The governor. Trust me, Jonathan, she appreciates the value of discretion better than anybody.”

“You can assure Malivette that nothing happening here will spill beyond the walls of Manor Leduc,” Sherwin said testily. “Which makes it by definition none of her damn business. Now, if that is all…”

“You can assure her of that yourself, m’lord,” Ruby replied smoothly. “The Lady Dufresne has sent a carriage to convey you and your very fascinating new houseguests to her residence for a polite conversation. She has instructed me to emphasize that her intentions toward you are as always nothing less than friendly, in the spirit of the long detente which has reigned between your two great Houses, and also that this is not a request.”


Their guides had kept them moving well after the customary time for a lunch break, smiling politely but refusing to relent even despite Ruda and Gabriel’s complaints. The reason became clear in the early afternoon when the party reached their designated stopping place, which proved well worth both the wait and the hike.

Just off the winding mountain trail was a grotto where a waterfall plummeted in a series of steps from a high-up spring into a wide pool below, casting the entire tiny stone valley in a cooling mist. The group had broken for a belated meal, and then tarried to rest and rejuvenate themselves.

There wasn’t room in the grotto for anybody to get properly lost, and so they had each wandered to various corners to pass the time without getting out of sight of each other. Their two guides from the Order of the Light had so far been diffident to the point of standoffish, but Toby had finally occupied them both in conversation at the edge of the pool, along with the two Legionnaires. Gabriel and Juniper were engrossed in teaching Sniff to play fetch up and down the path leading from the main pass to this hidden alcove. Ruda had left her hat, coat, and sword on the ground near their supplies and was now playing a game with Fross which seemed to consist of her trying to ice-skate across the pool in her boots, while the pixie created a path of ice inches in front of her and vanished it immediately behind. Needless to say, she was utterly drenched, and laughing so exuberantly it was amazing she hadn’t managed to drown herself.

Trissiny finished climbing the long, winding path up the side of the grotto to one of the tiers of the waterfall, where a smaller pool lay against the cliff wall, some twenty feet up and with a perfect view of the rest of the valley and their relaxing classmates. Teal and Shaeine already sat on the rocks at the edge, trousers and robes respectively rolled up and with their shoes on the rock beside them, dangling their feet in the water while F’thaan splashed ecstatically around their legs, yipping and trying to chase puffs of spray.

“I’m not intruding, am I?” Trissiny asked, having to raise her voice a little due to the sound of the falls.

“Not at all,” Teal called back, waving. “Please, join us.”

She took a careful seat a few feet distant, perching her booted feet on the rim of the pool and resting her folded arms across her knees. Below, Principia glanced up at them and raised one hand in a perfunctory wave before quickly returning her attention to her own conversation. What with the roar of falling water, this was the first time all morning any of them had been within sight of the elf but not the range of her sharp hearing.

“Do you know anything about the Eserite doctrines of revenge?” Trissiny asked aloud.

“No, but I confess I am rather curious,” Shaeine replied. “My sister Nahil has offered some intriguing commentary about Eserites. The Guild’s codes seem quite opaque to outsiders.”

“Very little of it is actually secret,” said Trissiny, lifting one shoulder in half a shrug, “we just don’t talk much with outsiders about Guild business. But revenge… By Eserite lore, there are three criteria a situation has to meet before you should pursue vengeance upon someone: it has to be satisfying, strategic, and safe.”

“Oh?” Shaine smiled faintly, turning her face toward Trissiny. “How intriguing. In fact, it begins to sound similar to Narisian philosophy. Would you elaborate?”

“Revenge,” Trissiny said, gazing distantly at the scene below them, “is only satisfying if the target knows what is happening to them, at whose instigation, and why. Anonymous acts of retaliation can be amusing, but they’re just…not the same. Not really worth the effort, usually. That’s the part that makes it tricky to line up the other two requirements. For it to be strategic, it means there has to be a functional purpose in attacking someone. In the Guild’s case, that usually means a show of force that will dissuade them from causing further trouble. If you don’t arrange the situation carefully and make sure your act is the final one, all you’ll do is kick off an escalating cycle of retaliation. Which plays into the criterion of safe. In fact, I personally always thought it should just be folded into the second one. Basically, don’t seek revenge on anyone if they’re in a position to do it right back at you afterward. So, given how tricky it is to align all those criteria, Eserites—that is, good Eserites who keep to the codes—very rarely end up seeking personal revenge.”

Shaeine nodded slowly, still wearing that faint smile. “I see. We can address the subtext whenever you are ready, Trissiny. It’s not uncomfortable for me.”

Trissiny sighed, glancing up at her and then looking back down at the others. “The way you keep giving Principia a cold shoulder when she tries to apologize to you is honestly fine, Shaeine. That’s the least of what she has coming, and she knows it. Using your energy shields to trip or jostle her every time…might be less so. Whatever else she may be, Principia Locke is Eserite right down to her core. That means she knows when she’s in the wrong, and won’t begrudge you getting a little of your own back. If you push it to the point where she decides you’re the one being abusive, though, you may be courting more trouble than you comprehend. Don’t underestimate her.”

Shaeine studied her in silence for a moment, then turned her head to look at Teal.

“It’s Trissiny, loveling,” Teal said softly, barely audible through the sound of falling water. “We should be open with her.”

The drow closed her eyes and leaned over for a moment, briefly resting the crown of her forehead against Teal’s jaw, then turned back to Trissiny with a smile a few degrees warmer.

“Trissiny, I realize you have a complicated history with that woman, and less attachment to her than to the one who raised you. But these facts remain: she is your mother, you are my friend, and my culture is what it is. She would have to have done far worse to me than the, I admit, relatively minor offense she committed before I would willingly do her serious harm. Rest assured, I have no intention of acting toward her in a way that could reasonably be described as abusive.”

Trissiny nodded, turning an answering smile on her. “Good, I’m glad to hear that. I guess… I don’t really understand, then. I don’t mean any offense, Shaeine, but…this seems petty to me. And you’re one of the least petty people I’ve ever known. That tells me there’s something going on that I’m missing.”

“Oh, I can be a little petty,” Shaeine replied, now with an open if reserved grin. “From time to time. But you’re right, it is not quite so simple as that. Well, let me put it this way. In Tar’naris, we have a saying: the best revenge is to place someone in your power.”

Trissiny frowned thoughtfully. “Then that really sounds like you may be asking for trouble.”

“I’m hardly going to try to enslave her, either,” said Shaeine. “But it’s just as you said, Trissiny: the situation matters. Principia has been nakedly angling to get closer to you as long as we have known her, and I don’t expect that has changed. Now, furthermore, she answers to your High Commander and is on some mission which, I surmise, involves getting on the good side of at least Tellwyrn and possibly all of us. In short, there is no situation in which it will be safe or strategic for her to retaliate against me. The moment she commits to such a feud, a huge swath of everything she wants will go up in smoke.”

“So you think you can mess with her with impunity?” Trissiny said warily. “Shaeine…”

“It’s not that,” Teal assured her. “Look, Triss, as mad as we both were at the time, that was two years ago. It was all remedied in minutes, and everybody is over it. There are no grudges being held here.”

“What there is,” Shaeine added, “is a clever, well-connected, potentially very useful person to know who now finds herself needing to worm her way back into my good graces. I have no intention of harming Principia in the least; I have no specific plans for her, either. What I do know is that my mother would be severely disappointed in me if I squandered an opportunity to leverage the debt of honor she owes House Awarrion for the sake of getting some trifling personal revenge. In short, my little pranks are intended simply to make it clear to Principia that she is not in favor with me.” A mild, self-satisfied smile settled over her features and she leaned back slightly, stretching out her legs and wiggling her toes above the surface of the water. “And then…we will see what she is willing to do to get there. And if I allow myself to enjoy the process just a little, well, the smirking polecat did creep into our home and drug us both.”

“So that’s your game,” Trissiny mused after a thoughtful pause, frowning faintly at the scene below them. Principia was still not looking in their direction.

“Trissiny.” Shaeine turned to her, straightening up and fully sobering her expression. “I meant what I said. This is a matter of seizing an opportunity; it’s not a vengeance I feel a particular need to pursue, nor does my House specifically want anything from Locke. More immediately, I care very much about your feelings, and what you think of me. If you request it, I will instantly drop the entire thing and make no further reference to it. As far as my own feelings go, I have forgiven her long since. A grudge is a heavy thing to carry, and seldom worth the labor.”

“No,” Trissiny said pensively, pausing to chew on her lower lip for a moment. “No, now that I understand what you’re doing… I have no objection to any of this. Sounds like you actually do know what you’re about, and I see no harm in it. With that said, now, I do have a request.”

“Name it.”

Trissiny turned to face her with a sudden grin. “I wanna play, too.”

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15 – 4

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“I suppose it is possible,” Crystal said, her metal footfalls echoing on the path in the early morning quiet. The two of them walked through a rare bank of fog as a passing cloud drifted into the mountaintop, Tellwyrn’s passage as silent as any elf’s. The golem’s new body was actually lighter than her old, it metallic parts being much leaner and in fact designed after a human skeleton, padded on the limbs with lightweight material to fill out the suit she wore. The only shoes which had fit over her spring-loaded metal feet, however, were clumsy galoshes which she found awkward to wear, and so she went barefoot, hence the distinctive metallic sound of her gait. Though Crystal had taken to wearing gloves to conceal her skeletal-looking hands, as their appearance unnerved some of the new students, she once again had a simple steel mask for a face. She claimed it suited her.

“You were linked into that thing as closely as can be,” Tellwyrn prompted. “Is that really all you can tell me? It’s possible?”

“It really is, Professor, I’m sorry. The Crawl’s systems may have been as orderly as dwarven clockwork when they were first designed, but I think that was actually well before the Elder War. Millennia of being used by resident monsters and passing adventurers, adapting and repairing and growing, have made it something that seems very much organic in structure. I could isolate specific pieces of data to examine, but their organizational system made little sense, and the results of trying to perceive the overall whole were frustratingly vague. I can tell you that I don’t recall seeing any structures such as the students described to you, but I also could not swear that the functions of such a device might not have been integrated into the Crawl’s own ancient machinery, somehow. Everything down there is a ten-thousand-year hodgepodge.”

“It’s probably nothing about which we need worry,” Tellwyrn murmured, frowning into the fog around them. “It hasn’t caused any problems in fifty years and with Rowe gone, the Visage is no longer attracting critters from other realities… But these gates would account for that effect so very well, I don’t want to just ignore the possibility.”

“I didn’t hear the paladins’ report, obviously, but the way you described it, Professor, it sounded like Vesk had them all locked away except for the one lost under Puna Dara.”

“I never assume any god has full control over anything they’re supposed to, especially that one. Well, with Elder God crap in general the best policy is usually not to poke at it, so the last thing I want is to start tearing apart the Crawl to look for a putative dimensional gate that only might be down there. Still, I feel a little investigation is warranted. Morning, Andrew.”

“G’morning, Professor, Crystal!” Finchley said as the two of them passed through the inner security gate, lifting a steaming cup. A single fairy lamp glowed in the gatehouse office, illuminating the window through which he greeted them. “The kids have all gone through already. We’ve got a pot brewed if you wanna stop in on your way back. Some jasmine blend from Shengdu, real fancy stuff! Fedora either stole it or won it in a poker game, he was unclear.”

“I may take you up on that,” she said with a smile. “Work first, though.”

“As always. Watch your step going down the mountain, it’s pea soup out there.”

“I am an elf, you twit.”

“Wasn’t talking to you, Professor,” he grinned, unoffended.

“Thank you, Finchley, I will be careful,” Crystal promised, and they proceeded down through the new research campus. At that hour, it was even quieter than the old campus; students on the upper levels were already heading off to classes, but the visiting brains pursuing research projects tended to set more indulgent hours for themselves.

“When everyone’s settled into the new semester and you have time, Crystal, I’d like you to have another look, if you’re willing. With Alaric and Admestus along for safety’s sake, of course.”

“I certainly am, Professor, if you feel it is important. I may have better luck, knowing a specific thing for which to look, but I stress that I’m reluctant to guarantee any results.”

“Of course, this is just due diligence. As I said, it’s unlikely to be a problem if it hasn’t become one before now, but considering the mess that could have resulted from Rowe’s tampering if he wasn’t stopped… You’re certain he’s no longer an issue?”

“No child of Vanislaas is ever not an issue, Professor. They can’t be eliminated, just inconvenienced. I feel comfortable asserting he will have a harder time getting out of where I put him than he ever did escaping from Hell. If Rowe becomes a problem again, it will be for future generations.”

“I’ll take it,” Tellwyrn said with a smile. “All right, thanks for keeping me company; I see my next appointment up ahead. You’d better get the library opened.”

“Of course. Have a good morning, Professor. Let me know when you want me to investigate the Crawl again.”

“Will do. Take care.”

Crystal turned to head back up the path into the main campus, while Tellwyrn continued on down the wide avenue through the terraces of the research complex. In the morning quiet, she could already hear the conversation going on at the lower gate of the University’s expanded property.

“You did not call her a bitch!”

“Bet your sweet bippy I did. Right in front of my captain, the enforcers and the Huntsmen.”

“Bullshit, I don’t believe you. I used to hang out with the Fourth Legion when they were stationed where I grew up and a soldier who pulled that would’ve had the wrath of Avei come raining down on her.”

“Yeah, I think the LT was cursed by a fairy to never have to suffer the consequences of the crap she does.”

“Good to see everyone’s getting along,” Tellwyrn said, coming to a stop in the shadow of the outer gate, where three people in uniform were standing around apparently swapping stories.

“Hey, Professor!” Rook said cheerfully, rendering a singularly half-assed salute. “Morning, you missed the juniors by a few minutes.”

“How nice, they’ve developed the skill of showing up on time, finally,” she said, turning to the two Legionnaires. “That must have been an awkward meeting, Locke. Did you already spill the beans?”

“Oh, we only just got here a minute or two before you, Professor,” Principia replied, her tone suddenly far more polite than the one she’d used to josh around with Rook. Merry stood off to the side, apparently willing herself to be invisible. “Haven’t encountered the kids yet.”

“What amazingly precise timing you have,” Tellwyrn said dryly. “As always. All right, come along, I fear for the village if those little goons are left unattended in it for too long. See you later, Tom, try not to burn the place down.”

“The question is when I’m gonna burn the place down,” Rook said with a broad grin as she passed through the gates, Principia and Merry falling into step behind her. “You want in on the pool? I’m down for the week before graduation! If it involves a talking donkey and not Rafe’s alchemy lab I stand to really clean up.”

“He’s my favorite,” Tellwyrn commented while Rook and the gate receded into the distance behind them.

Principia cleared her throat. “I appreciate how gracious you’re being about all this, Arachne. I promise you won’t have cause to regret—”

“Cut that out,” the Professor growled.

“Pardon?”

“Being all polite and diplomatic, as if you were some kind of grown-up professional. I’ve known you too long, Prin. It’s creepy.”

“People do change, Arachne.”

“People can change. They usually don’t.”

“Then why take the risk?”

Tellwyrn turned her head to give the other elf a very wide grin, then faced forward again and continued walking in silence.

“Now that was a predatory look,” Merry mumbled. “I can’t decide if she wants to eat you or screw you.”

“Read the room, Lang. I think this situation calls for an awkward silence, not banter.”

“Oh, good. I’m great at those.”

To anyone familiar with the town of Last Rock over the last few decades, the view as one descended the mountain into its streets displayed its recent, rapid changes to great effect. The village was larger, with new construction spreading in all directions except up the mountainside itself, and now had even crossed the Rail line in a series of three sturdy footbridges and, a short distance to the south of the town proper, the beginnings of what would be a vehicle-friendly bridge crossing over the Rail. It also had new landmarks, with the flat but distinctive spread of the Vidian temple to the north and the white marble dome and columns of the Silver Mission in the opposite direction near the old road into town from Calderaas, two new windmills on the western edge beyond the Rail line, a new water tower and grain silo, and the jagged framework of what would be a second telescroll tower when its crystal orb was installed.

The three of them walked in silence, gazing out at the spread of Last Rock as they passed beneath the level of the cloud cover, and soon were stepping into its streets. It was sleepy as any rural town at this hour, but a few early risers exchanged polite greetings with Tellwyrn and gave the Legionnaires curious looks, often doing double-takes when they recognized Principia. She was smiling smugly at the trail of staring people they left behind by the time the group had reached their destination: the Rail platform.

New growth was evident here, too. Benches and street lamps had been added around the perimeter of the platform itself, the ticket stand was in the midst of a significant expansion into a proper office, and a newsstand selling papers from Tiraas and Calderaas had been erected at the edge of the street. The hot new rumor around town was that the Surveyor Corps was considering adding Last Rock to the regular travel rotation, instead of requiring caravans there to be specially commissioned.

The new junior class was taking advantage of the recently-installed benches. Teal and Shaeine were seated at one end, leaning against each other, while Juniper stretched out on the rest of their seat; the bench terminated against a lamp post, with another on its other side, where Gabriel sat straddling the wooden seat with his back against the pole, reading a comic. Fross was hovering around the top of the new street light, apparently inspecting the fairy lamp, while Toby and Trissiny stood talking quietly a few feet distant. Ruda paced up and down the edge of the platform, humming the tune of “I’d Hit Sally” under her breath. The animals played under the watchful eyes of Shaeine and Teal, F’thaan gamboling around the end of their bench while Sniff had retreated a few yards to study the young hellhound intently, his head twisting this way and that.

“Now, that’s what I like to see!” Tellwyrn said brightly, striding onto the platform with her escort trailing along behind. “Everybody in place, fully dressed, and mostly conscious, with no need for me to teleport anyone.”

“Don’t lie, you love teleporting people,” Ruda snorted.

“What is that doing here?” Shaiene demanded in a frigid tone.

“I see you all remember Lieutenant Locke,” Tellwyrn said. “One thing at a time, Mrs. Awarrion. Juniper, sit up; I require that my students at least pretend to be awake when I am addressing them. Now! I assume you’ve been clued in by your fellow students about the traditional junior class excursion, but for the sake of thoroughness and because many of your classmates are hysterical liars, I will summarize. You are going to a site in the Wyrnrange known in this era as the Desolate Gardens. This is a location of immense historical significance, currently administered by the Order of the Light, who will be your hosts. It is the location where the Third Hellwar started and ended, the site of the single largest hellgate ever created, which was the source of the demon invasion and the site of the last battle of the war. Now it is a sanctified place of healing, meditation, and retreat.”

“How sanctified, exactly?” Juniper asked. “I assume you wouldn’t send us to a place that would be inherently dangerous for Fross and me…”

“Thank you for crediting me with extremely basic sense, Juniper. Yes, the Desolate Gardens is mostly fine for you. There are powerfully divine-blessed locations on the site, some old chapels and shrines, but also a few spots of fae significance. The Order of the Light, despite its name, isn’t a strictly divine-wielding institution. They have always made heavy use of mages and witches, and even fairy allies.”

“What are we to do there, Professor?” Toby asked.

“This is a free-form exercise, rather like your Golden Sea trips. Rather than survival, however, the point of this trip is to test your mental and emotional balance.”

“How so?” Trissiny demanded.

Tellwyrn smiled vaguely. “Now, now. If I explain everything ahead of time, there is virtually no point in going. The Desolate Gardens are a place where people tend to find…what they need. With you lot, the results should be very interesting indeed. As a side note, it is also the place where Vadrieny and I came closest to encountering one another prior to her enrollment here. We were both present at that last battle, though we did not personally interact. I tell you this,” she added directly to Teal in a more serious tone, “simply to forewarn. I know she has had unexpected memories pop up before, and this is the first time I’m sending you to a place where that’s specifically likely to happen. At this point, Vadrieny has earned trust, and I am not worried. I just don’t want that to sneak up on you.”

“We both appreciate that, Professor,” Teal replied.

“So,” said Gabriel, glancing around the quiet platform, “does this mean you’re going to be our guardian on this trip, Professor?”

Tellwyrn sighed softly and adjusted her glasses. “Right. This is, as I said, a free-form exercise. Usually students are accompanied by one of the dorm guardians rather than a Professor, as the objective is not to pursue academic goals. Your attendant is along more as insurance than leadership, there simply to watch over you in case of some severe injury or other unforseeable disaster. None of which have ever happened on this particular field trip, but as you know my rule about letting students off-campus unattended is inviolable. And besides, if there were going to be an unforseeable disaster it’d be you little bastards who brought it on.”

“Man, you run off and charge one hellgate and everybody gets a fuckin’ attitude,” Ruda snorted.

“I’m sure I needn’t explain all the changes affecting our school, so I won’t,” Tellwyrn continued, “except to say that the research campus is not the end of it by far. For most of its history the University has stood effectively apart from the world, but that’s not going to work for much longer. Rather than lurk on our mountaintop and wait for the world to overtake us, I am taking steps to reach out and be the initiator, or at least active participant, in forging new connections. In the last two years I have been actively in contact with the Imperial government, and since the construction of the research facilities we have made formal academic exchanges with several other universities in the Tiraan Empire, the Five Kingdoms, Syralon, and most recently in the Republic of Sheng-La. Point is, from here on out, we are going to be less and less isolated out here. Students at ULR will have ever more interaction with the wider world. Given the way the world is shaping up and what our students need, I think this will be all to the good.”

“Hang on, now,” said Ruda, looking at Principia. “You can’t be leading up to…”

“Yes, in fact,” Tellwyrn replied flatly. “This trip will be an experiment toward that ongoing goal. It will mark the first University excursion overseen by non-University personnel. On your visit to the Desolate Gardens, your assigned chaperones will be Lieutenant Locke and Corporal Lang of the Third Silver Legion.”

All the students immediately began talking at once, most loudly. The exceptions were Ruda, who was laughing so hard she had to slump against the lamp post to brace herself, and uncharacteristically Gabriel, who simply studied Locke in silence.

Tellwyrn let this go on for thirty seconds, and then raised one finger. A thin, piercing whine rose in the air, causing the general furor of complaints to dissolve into a few pained shouts.

“What the fuck?!” Ruda roared the second it cut off. “Naphthene’s tits, you sadistic old bag, I liked it better when you just blew shit up and made loud noises!”

“Dunno, that was a pretty loud noise,” Toby said, still twisting a fingertip in his ear and grimacing.

“It’s year three now, and incredibly, I still have to say this,” Tellwyrn sighed. “Think. Use those brains instead of just reacting. I know your history with Locke; she’s guilty of offenses against you, in particular, for which I have been known to fling people bodily off my mountain. And now I’m placing her nominally in charge of you, out from under my watchful eye. Rather than flying off the handle, read between the lines and see if you can figure out what this means. Anyone?”

“It means,” Gabriel said quietly, still staring at Principia, “you literally don’t care if we kill her.”

In the stillness, Trissiny and Shaeine both shifted their heads in unison to look at him, then at Principia, and finally back at Tellwyrn. Locke herself wore a vague smile which had not faltered during the whole conversation; Merry, now, began edging away from her.

Tellwyrn pointed at Gabriel. “You know, Arquin, I have come to regard you as one of my biggest successes. Not that you’re the brightest star in the firmament by any means, but you are ten times the man you were when you arrived here, and if there’s one thing I like to see in my students, it’s self-improvement. As is becoming a pattern with you, you’ve hit the nail on the head.”

“Interesting,” Shaeine enunciated tonelessly. At that, Principia’s smile finally slipped.

“In the years to come,” said Tellwyrn, “things like this are going to become more and more frequent. I foresee a variety of scenarios in which students at this very exclusive University will be placed temporarily under the guidance of people from other institutions. My intention is to get a feel for how this will work, iron out the kinks, and suss out ahead of time any unexpected problems that may arise. This particular assignment is going to be a test case, and I have chosen it specifically because of the lack of risk involved.”

She began pacing slowly up and down the platform while speaking, hands folded behind her. “Locke came here to reach out on behalf of High Commander Rouvad, who is looking to ingratiate the Sisterhood with my school in pursuit of a new goal of hers, not dissimilar from my own. This makes a perfect low-stakes test case because the Sisterhood has nothing I want. If you kids manage to screw this up beyond all hope of redemption…” She shrugged. “Oh, well.

“The risk is further minimized if I make your class the lab rats in this exercise, for two reasons: one, hardly anything in the world is a severe physical danger to you, so I worry less about your actual safety than most other students. And two, despite some early hiccups, you have grown to be a reliable group. I trust you not to cause trouble that didn’t need to be caused. Those of you who are smirking had better cease immediately. I don’t do flattery and the second I see a need I can give a ten-minute off-the-cuff speech on the crippling character flaws of each and every one of you.”

She stopped speaking and pace, sweeping a gimlet eye across the whole group, under which there was total silence except for a tiny growl from F’thaan.

“And finally,” Tellwyrn continued at last, “there is, as we have mentioned, the curious case of Principia Locke. In a hypothetical worst-case scenario, Rouvad will have to make offended noises if one of her soldiers gets mangled, but in this case they will be less than emphatic. You can always tell where Prin has been because that’s where you’ll find people pissed off at her. I expect you to comport yourselves properly as representatives of this University and not inflict unnecessary trouble upon your chaperones, but let’s face it: if this whole thing ends with Principia’s head rolling into a ditch, nobody’s going to be especially cheesed off at me about it. I would be disappointed at the lack of respect shown to Trissiny’s feelings, should that occur, but even she would get over it pretty quickly. Any disagreement on that?”

This time, she turned to include Locke in her inquisitive stare. Nobody raised an objection, though Trissiny frowned, Merry and Ruda grinned, and Principia and Shaeine had both gone eerily expressionless.

“Very good, then,” Tellwyrn went on briskly. “Locke has your full travel itinerary, though it’s not too involved. You will be going by Rail to the town of Hollowfield; it’s a caravan ride of only a few minutes that’ll put you about equidistant between Mathenon and Stavulheim. There you will be met by representatives of the Order of the Light, who will conduct you on a roughly two-day trip overland through the mountain roads to the Desolate Gardens. As is both traditional and part of the exercise, your time of departure will not be known to you. Locke knows the schedule. As does Lang, who seems a fairly inoffensive person, so if you little buggers can’t behave, at least try to keep one of them alive.”

“Hey, question,” said Ruda, raising her hand. “How come you can’t just teleport us right to the place, like you did in Puna Dara?

“Because too much convenience is not good for you,” Tellwyrn said placidly. “Especially since that incident required me to intervene before you lot could run off without me, and there are consequences for putting me out.”

“Well, I think it sounds like fun!” Fross chimed. “I’ve never gone on a journey into the mountains before! I always felt like we missed out on that in Veilgrad.”

“Ah, ah,” Juniper chided, scowling up at her. “No legs, no opinion on the two-day hike.”

“I’ve got legs,” Fross protested. “And I’d like to see you fly everywhere if you think it’s so easy!”

“If the Golden Sea didn’t kill us, this won’t,” Toby said, firmly but with a smile.

“That’s the spirit!” Tellwyrn said cheerfully. “All right, you know what you need to. Locke will be able to reach me in the event of an emergency. Keep in mind her position and if she is forced to remind you of University rules I’ll expect you to listen, but aside from that, she is not actually authorized to order you about. She is hundreds of years old, a veteran Eserite, and apparently a surprisingly competent soldier, so in the event of a crisis, I suggest getting her input. By and large, however, you’re under your own guidance.”

“In the event of a crisis,” said Principia, “I’m not going to try to stop this group from racing to the fore. I understand that’s something of a pattern with them.”

“Oh, naturally,” Tellwyrn replied. “Equally naturally I will still hold you fully accountable for whatever befalls them, whether or not you could have stopped it. That’s the job you signed up for.”

“Of course,” Principia replied with a sardonic grimace.

Ruda cracked her knuckles loudly.

“And with that,” said Tellwyrn, grinning wolfishly, “you are officially on your own, kids. Your caravan will be here at the top of the hour. While you wait, know that I’m going to be enjoying a cup of imported jasmine tea in the comfort of the guardhouse. And I’m not even going to have to walk there!”

At the distance she stood from them, even the tiny puff of displaced air caused by her teleportation was inaudible; she was simply, suddenly gone.

“How long do you think it’s gonna be till she forgives us for Puna Dara?” Gabriel asked. “Seems unfair. We didn’t even succeed in running away, that time.”

Ruda cackled. “How long can elves live?”

“That is the question of the day, isn’t it,” Teal said in an innocent tone, not looking in Principia’s direction. Shaeine silently took her hand, interlacing their fingers.

Principia herself put on a broad smile and clapped her gauntleted hands together loudly, stepping forward to the center of the Rail platform. “Well! Here we are, then, campers. Who’s ready to go on an adventure?”

All of them stared back at her in total silence. Except F’thaan, who growled in tiny dislike.

Merry took a circumspect step backward from her commanding officer.

Undeterred by this chilly reception, Principia opened her mouth to speak again.

A wall of silver light flashed into being behind her and swept forward, shoving her bodily past them and off the platform. The shield dissipated at the edge, though by that point it had built up enough speed to launch her all the way over the Rail line itself.

While Gabriel applauded, Ruda shouted criticism of her landing and Toby hopped down to help her up, Trissiny sidled over to the end of the bench where Shaeine and Teal sat and leaned over to murmur to them.

“Please don’t actually kill her, though.”

“Of course, Trissiny,” Shaeine said immediately, nodding deeply to her. “I would never show such disregard for your feelings. Besides, my mother always taught me that homicide is a lesser revenge.” She paused, turning her head to glance over her shoulder at Principia, who had landed lightly and was now reassuring Toby as to her condition. “I have much better ideas.”

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15 – 1

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“You’d be welcome, if you wanna come along,” Toby promised.

“Nah, I need to get a head start on my research project; Yornhaldt and Tellwyrn both signed off on it, but with the clear understanding they expected to see me buckling down to the work.” Raolo grinned and leaned in to kiss Toby’s cheek, squeezing his hand. “Sides, it’s been close to a year since your whole group was together again. You guys go catch up; we’ll have plenty of time.”

“All right. I’ll come by and keep you company while you work tonight,” the paladin replied, unable to keep the grin off his face.

“It’s a date.” Raolo took two steps back, stretching their clasped arms out between them, before finally releasing Toby’s hand and turning to go skipping off back up the path through the center of the mostly-constructed new research campus toward the old gates. Toby was still smiling when he turned back around to face the rest of the newly-minted junior class.

“Aww,” Juniper, Teal, and Fross cooed in unison.

Ruda’s commentary, as usual, was less saccharine. “Has anybody else noticed our social circle is disproportionately queer?”

Trissiny sighed. “Ruda.”

“What? I’m serious! This makes two thirds of the full-blooded humans in our year. The species can’t possibly be this gay; even the elves would outbreed us!”

“Three individuals is not a statistically useful sample size, Ruda,” Fross said severely. “I realize you’re not a mathematics major but I would expect you to know that much.”

“Guys, relax,” Toby interjected, still smiling. “It’s just us here. If anything, I’d be offended if Ruda thought I was too fragile to face the rough side of her tongue.”

“See?” Grinning, Ruda punched him on the shoulder. “Paladin boy gets it!”

“Hey, as long as Ruda can have her fun without fucking stabbing someone, I say leave her to it.”

“You’re just tetchy because you’re the only one who ever gets stabbed, Arquin.”

“Oh, shoot,” Juniper said suddenly, pressing a hand to one of the pouches hanging from her belt. “I forgot to bring my money purse…”

“It’s okay, June, we’ll spot you,” said Trissiny.

“No, that’s all right, this is an opportunity. Sniff!”

Juniper knelt and the dog-sized creature which had been pacing silently alongside her chirped, skittering around in front to meet her gaze. He was covered in feathers and generally bird-shaped, albeit with a long, flat head filled with jagged teeth and a serpentine tail which ended in a colorful spray of plumes. His wings were clearly arms despite the pinions which flared outward from the wrist joint; they had already observed Sniff’s ability to pick up objects in his little clawed fingers. Now the crest of feathers atop his head stood upright in attention.

“Go back to the bedroom,” Juniper instructed slowly and clearly, staring into the creature’s eyes, “and get my money bag. Okay? You understand?”

Sniff made his croaking little chirp again, bobbed his head once, then stepped around her and dashed off back up the path into the campus.

F’thaan growled, taking a few steps after him, but Shaeine snapped her fingers and pointed at the ground by her feet. The little hellhound immediately scampered over to lie down beside her.

“It’s good for him to have tasks,” the dryad said, straightening and watching him go. “Part of where I went wrong with Jack was treating him like a pet. A druid’s familiar is meant to be helpful. I guess now we’ll find out if he knows what my money bag is… If not, I may need to owe somebody for drinks.”

“We’ll spot you, don’t worry,” Teal assured her with a smile.

“Well, since we’re talking about it now,” said Ruda, “what the fuck is that thing?”

“Sniff is not a thing,” Juniper replied, turning a frown on her. “He’s my companion.”

“Okay, point taken, but what is he?”

“He kind of resembles a sylph,” Trissiny mused.

“Sniff is a proto-bird!” Fross chimed. “I assume you found him in the Golden Sea, Juniper? That’s the most common place to find extinct species. You guys remember the smilodon we met on our first expedition? But yeah, I dunno his exact species; this school doesn’t have a lot of material on the subject in the library. You’ve gotta go to Svenheim for a university with an actual department of paleontology. Proto-birds are the general group of species that evolved into modern birds.”

“Yeah, I found Sniff in the Sea,” Juniper said. “Out by the edge of it, but still. I was performing a sunrise ritual Sheyann taught me how to incorporate into shamanic practice, and…there he was. It seemed kinda like fate.”

“Yeah, I didn’t wanna press you or anything,” said Gabriel, patting her shoulder, “but it’s obvious you had a busy summer.”

“I don’t mind talking about it,” Juniper said, smiling at him and unconsciously reaching up to touch the sunburst pendant resting on her upper chest, bound by a golden chain around her neck. Her entire appearance had undergone a change since the spring. In addition to her green hair being now combed back and bound in a single severe braid, the dryad’s customary sundresses had been traded in for dyed garments of traditional wood elven style which both covered a lot more skin and hugged her figure more closely. They had to have been made specially for her, as no elves had a frame as generously curvy as Juniper’s. She was also wearing a heavily laden tool belt rather like Trissiny’s, bristling with pouches of both shamanic reagents and mundane supplies. And, in its own leather holster, an Omnist libram whose cover glittered with the same golden sunburst sigil she now wore around her neck. Another sunburst hung, along with a string of prayer beads, from the tie holding the end of her long braid together. “After…you know, what happened at Puna Dara… Well, it was clear to me I needed some source of calm and focus, like you guys have. I mean, Toby, Trissiny, Shaeine. It may be all different religions but you’re all centered in a way I suddenly realized I was missing. Druidic traditions are great but they don’t exactly provide that. And, well… Themynrite worship seems pretty drow-exclusive, and no offense, Trissiny, but it didn’t seem to me like Avei was offering what I needed.”

“No offense is taken,” Trissiny assured her. “I think that was a good call, Juniper. Avei fills a crucial need, but…” Her eyes caught Gabriel’s, and she smiled. “Everybody does not have the same problem.”

“And so the dryad is an Omnist now,” Ruda chuckled. “Ain’t life a show?”

“I’m proud of you,” Toby said, also patting Juniper’s back. “And not because you picked my religion, Juno, but because you’re working on yourself. I hope you find what you need in Omnu, but remember: if you don’t, you’re allowed to keep looking. It’s a lot more important to me that you be happy than that you follow my own faith.”

“You’re a good friend,” she replied with a smile. “And a good monk.”

They had no sooner resumed their way down the mountain staircase toward Last Rock than Gabriel abruptly slowed. “Heads up. Vestrel says we’ve got company coming.”

“There’s usually some kinda company coming and going, it ain’t like this is a cloistered campus,” Ruda replied. “What’s got Spooky’s feathers in a ruffle?”

“Don’t call her that,” Gabriel said with a long-suffering sigh.

“I see them, too,” Shaeine interjected, and the rest all turned to her in surprise at the wintry undertone in her normally serene voice. Beside her, F’thaan growled, picking up on her mood. “Vestrel is right to be concerned. Trissiny, you should perhaps step to the front.”

It took only moments longer for the pair coming up the mountain to ascend within range of non-elven eyes, Shaeine’s vision being mostly adapted to sunlight after two years on the surface. The bronze Legion armor was evident as soon as the two were in view, and it wasn’t long afterward that at least one of the oncoming Legionnaires was personally identifiable.

“Well, hidey-ho, kids!” Principia Locke called, waving broadly as she and her companion came up the stairs toward them. “Fancy meeting you here!”

“We are supposed to be here,” Trissiny said pointedly. “And just because classes are out for the day does not mean I’m going to drop everything to spend time with you. Have you forgotten your last visit to this University? Because nobody else has.”

“Well, Trissiny, I’m always glad to see you,” Principia said with a grin, coming to a stop in front of them and a few steps down. Beside her, Merry came to attention, saluting. “And I hope we have a chance to catch up while I’m in town. But, and I’m sorry to have to tell you this, the sun does not rise and set on your golden head. We’re here to see Professor Tellwyrn. Legion business.”

Trissiny narrowed her eyes slightly. “I don’t think I saw a salute, Lieutenant.”

“You’re out of uniform, General,” Principia replied with unruffled calm.

At that, Trissiny cracked a faint smile of her own. She did have her sword buckled on over a casual leather longcoat, but no other indicators of her rank. “Well, she’s right, as it happens. At ease, Corporal Lang.”

“I’ve developed a policy of not taking risks when Locke starts getting shirty with people who can kill us, ma’am,” Merry said, relaxing a bit.

“I guess we know who’s the brains in this operation, then,” said Gabriel.

“Is there something you’d like to tell me about, Locke?” Trissiny asked.

“Yes,” Principia said with clear emphasis, meeting her eyes directly. “In my personal and professional opinion, you should be fully briefed and involved. But the High Commander’s regard for my opinion runs pretty thin these days, especially after our little game of tag with Syrinx this summer, and until she says otherwise our business remains classified.”

“I see,” Trissiny murmured.

Principia cleared her throat and shifted, nodding politely to Shaeine. “Ms. Awarrion, I’m very glad to see you up and well. You weren’t at Puna Dara with the others, so I missed the chance to apologize—”

“I’m sorry, Lieutenant, but matters are not that simple,” Shaeine interrupted tonelessly. Beside her, Teal stuck her hands in her coat pockets, fixing Principia with an extremely level stare. “I am on this campus in my capacity as a representative of House Awarrion and Tar’naris. If you wish to offer amends for any slights given, you will have to take it up with my mother. Excuse me.”

She turned and resumed walking down the mountainside, Teal following her after giving Principia a last lingering stare. F’thaan growled at the two Legionnaires before trotting off after them. Slowly, the rest of the students began filing past after their classmates, Ruda with a dark chuckle and a wink at Principia.

“…that’s a trap, isn’t it,” Principia mused aloud, half-turned to watch Shaeine’s back retreating down the staircase.

“Yep,” replied Trissiny, the last of the juniors still present. “I suggest you don’t go within a mile of Tar’naris unless you want to spend some time in a spider box. Ashaele is about as forgiving as any drow matriarch. And I am assuredly not going to expend what little political capital I have to rescue you from the consequences of your own nonsense.”

Principia turned back to her, grinning. “Appreciate the concern, kiddo, but that’s one thing I will never ask you to do. Trust me, I got by just fine for centuries without having anybody to watch over me.”

“That’s right, keep calling me funny little pet names,” Trissiny grunted, finally turning to follow the rest of her friends toward the town. “Way to rebuild those bridges, Locke. Have fun getting immolated, which I assume you know is what’s going to happen the instant Tellwyrn finds you on her campus again.”

“Relax, Thorn, you know my tag. I always have a way in!”

“Your funeral.”

“Will you send flowers?” Principia called after her. Trissiny, now several yards down the path, didn’t turn or respond. For a moment, the elf stood watching her go, then turned back to meet her companion’s eyes. “Oh, shut up, Lang.”

“Didn’t say a word,” Merry replied innocently.

“Well, could you think it a little more quietly?”

“Don’t think I can, LT. C’mon, let’s go get you immolated. I don’t wanna miss that.”


She lay awake—normal enough for the late afternoon, though he slept deeply beside her. He was always a deep sleeper, especially after sex. Two months ago she had found it an annoying habit, but had begun to find charm in it. That warned her that it was probably past time to go.

Fortunately, she had what she needed, now.

Natchua turned her head to watch him breathe for a long moment. He lay on his side, facing her, mouth hanging open and making a raspy noise with each breath that wasn’t quite a snore. As always, he had thrown an arm over her waist. In the beginning, it had been to paw sleepily at her breasts while drifting off, but more and more, lately, it seemed he just like to hold her close.

Definitely past time to go. And a layered irony that after all her snooping and needling all summer, the tiny piece of information that had been her whole purpose in coming to Mathenon had slipped from his lips in the last few mumbled words before he faded into sleep. Well, that had been the whole reason she had let this entanglement become so intimate. Information could be effectively sealed away from all scrying by the Church and the Empire and still be carelessly spilled by a man in his lover’s arms; every spy in history understood that basic fact.

She had the name, and he was asleep. There was no reason to still be lying there, except that it was comforting… And yes, that just served to emphasize how necessary it was to get out and put all this behind her before she got in any deeper.

Natchua slipped out from under his arm, freezing when he stirred and shifted. He didn’t wake, though, and she dressed in swift silence, the grace of an elf more than a match for a sleeping human’s senses. That should have been the very end of it.

Still, she hesitated.

On impulse, she stepped back to the bed and leaned over Jonathan, bending to lay a last kiss against his temple. Inches away, however, she paused. Foolish risk; the touch of her lips had a way of making him wake and reach for her. But the thought of just ending it like this, with nothing but a silent disappearance, sent a pang through her.

That was the final warning. Natchua straightened up, backing away from the bed, then turned and slipped in total silence out of Jonathan Arquin’s apartment, and life.

Long past time.


“What are you humming?” Ingvar asked.

“I don’t know!” Aspen said cheerfully, actually dancing a few steps. One of the elven groves they had visited had introduced her to dancing, and already her fondness for it bordered on passion. All it took now was a few bars of music to set her off. “Just going along with the music. It’s pretty!”

“Music?” Ingvar raised his head, paying more careful attention. There was no threat to be found in the forest; birds and squirrels were active and loud in the trees all around them, signifying a lack of nearby predators or disturbances. Those, plus the sound of wind whispering among the leaves, were all he could hear. “What music?”

“Oh, sorry. Sometimes I forget my ears are so much better than yours,” she said with an impish smirk.

“I’m sure,” he replied dryly. “Perhaps I could hear better if there weren’t another source of music so much closer at hand?”

Aspen made a face at him and he ruffled her hair. In the momentary silence, though, he could barely make out the thin notes of a flute.

“Hm,” Ingvar murmured, turning to look in that direction. The forest was just the way he liked them: too thick to see that far. Very thick, in fact; to judge by the concentration of underbrush, these woods were overdue for a burning. “I wonder who would be out playing a flute in the middle of the woods in N’Jendo, and why?”

“Because it’s pretty,” she explained slowly, as if he were being obtuse. “What more reason does anybody need for making music?”

“You really have taken to some of these mortal art forms, haven’t you?”

“My upbringing kinda missed out on…all of them,” she agreed. “C’mon, let’s go visit whoever’s playing.”

“Perhaps they would rather be left alone,” he suggested, even as he followed her in the direction of the notes. “Many who venture this deep into the forests don’t seek company. We’re out here for exactly that reason, remember?”

“Well, if they don’t want company, we can always leave ’em alone,” she said reasonably. “But I bet they do! Anybody who fills the forest with pretty music has to be nice.”

It was amazing how naive she could be, for a creature who predated the Enchanter Wars and could pick up a grizzly bear with one hand. Ingvar offered no further argument; he found that Aspen learned about people more quickly when allowed to interact with them, and immediately grew bored when he tried to lecture her. By and large, it was a good enough way to proceed. Obviously they couldn’t enter any actual towns, save the elven groves and scattered Ranger enclaves where she was a celebrity rather than a feared monster. Encountering isolated individuals who would not be enthused to meet a dryad was probably good for her, overall.

Reddish light filtered through the trees from the west; the shadow of the Wyrnrange in the east had already gone fully dark. It was about time to be looking for a campsite anyway. Hopefully whoever was playing that flute would be willing to share. If not, they would have to keep looking and probably risk traveling after dark. On his own, Ingvar would have been more perturbed at the prospect, but these woods held nothing that would challenge a dryad. Actually, they were too far below the mountains for cougars, and the small local black bears probably wouldn’t get aggressive with a human anyway. Still, traveling with Aspen had started to spoil him a little.

They found a stream before they found the music, and in fact followed the path it cut through the ground uphill to a flat stretch of rock that jutted over the water, upon which no trees grew. It had been cleared of underbrush and a fire built near its center. Upon a fallen log next to the fire sat the music maker.

It was an elf. He had black hair. Ingvar narrowed his eyes, studying him.

“Oh, that’s a weird flute,” Aspen blurted out.

The elf was apparently unsurprised by their appearance—but then, he had doubtless heard them coming for the last half mile, even with his music. He lowered the little potato-shaped instrument from his lips to grin at the.

“It’s called an ocarina! Bit of a family tradition, you might say. Well, then!” He looked back and for between them a few times. “I’ve gotta say, you two aren’t what I was expecting.”

“What were you expecting?” Ingvar asked warily.

“It’s a funny thing, how you can have absolutely no idea what’s coming and still be surprised at the form it takes,” the elf said cheerfully. “Any shaman my age has to get used to the effect. The spirits told me that this is where I needed to come, that there was someone I needed to meet, and that I’d need to guide them to the next stage of their quest. But a dryad and a Huntsman of Shaath? That is a new one. Regardless, be welcome at my fire, daughter of Naiya, Brother of the Wolf. Consider the hospitality of my camp yours, as the hospitality of the forest is for all of us. My name is Rainwood.”

“Hey, thanks!” Aspen said brightly, trotting right up to him like a domestic horse and stretching out next to the flames with a pleased sigh.

Ingvar followed more judiciously, pausing to bow to the elf. “Our thanks, Rainwood.” It felt lacking; clearly the shaman’s welcome had been some manner of formal benediction, but it was one Ingvar had never heard. No great surprise, really. One could never tell how old an elf might be, and after their various visits with grove Elders he had grown almost accustomed to anachronistic etiquette. As long as the intent was clearly polite, he had found, showing courtesy in return never went amiss.

“So!” Rainwood tucked away his ocarina and tossed another piece of wood from the stack next to him on the fire. “I’m sure you two will have plenty of questions, and so do I. Let’s talk about quests, adventures, and the long road ahead of us.”


“Now that we stand upon the cusp of fruition,” Melaxyna intoned, “I feel I should state yet again, mistress, that this is surely one of the dumbest, most hare-brained—”

“Thank you, Mel, for sharing your opinion with me,” Natchua said flatly. “Double-check the spell circle.”

“Oh, come on, how many times—”

“Just do it!”

The succubus rolled her eyes, but obeyed, which was pretty much the pattern with her. Natchua had not found it necessary to impose discipline on her reluctant familiar, which she thought was for the best. Melaxyna already had a low opinion of every part of her plans, and adding tension to their relationship could only make it worse. So far, she followed orders without any funny business, and given the tendency of Vanislaad demons to creatively reinterpret instructions to their masters’ detriment, Natchua was quite content to endure backtalk if it meant Melaxyna actually did what she wanted her to do.

“It’s perfect,” the demon reported moments later, after pacing a full lap around the summoning circle, head bent to examine it closely. “And I’m sorry for jabbing at you about it.”

Natchua turned to her in surprise. “You’re sorry?”

“About that last bit,” the succubus clarified. “Precision and attention to detail are always vitally important in infernomancy, it’s a good idea to have me double-check your work, and I shouldn’t have downplayed that. I was not apologizing for my commentary on this dumb, pointless step in your hysterically asinine master plan.”

“Thanks, your approval means the world to me.”

“You know, kid, if you just wanted to fool around with that silver fox, I’m the last person in the world you need to justify it to with some grandiose plot.”

“I promise you, Mel, I will never justify anything I do for your benefit.”

“I kinda like that about you,” Melaxyna admitted.

Natchua turned back to the circle. “No more reason to wait then.” Raising both hands, she deftly channeled infernal power into the precise points on the circle, causing orange light to spread across the chalk lines on the floor and the five power crystals spaced around it to begin glowing. “You are summoned, HESTHRI!”

At the demon’s name, the infernal runes spelling it out in multiple places around the circle’s edge burst into flame.

“This whole thing has got to be the silliest use of infernal magic I have ever seen,” Melaxyna muttered. “And I once watched a guy burn down his house trying to curse rats out of the walls.” This time, Natchua ignored her.

A pillar of smoky light rose from the center of the floor, oscillating slowly. Within it, wisps of shadow coalesced into a humanoid figure, then solidified fully, and the light melted away. The circle itself continued to glow, though at a much dimmer intensity, with the only significant light sources being the power crystals and the still-flickering runes that spelled out Hesthri’s name.

Within, a hethelax demon spun rapidly about in confusion, spitting a few obscenities in demonic.

Natchua studied her with a more personal curiosity than she had expected to feel when this moment finally came. Yes…she could actually sort of see it. Hethelax demons were not generally held up as attractive specimens, not when there were the likes of Vanislaads and khelminash to which to compare them. The armor plating on their limbs made their elbows and knees permanently flexed, giving them a hunched posture like an ape’s. Additionally the scales and chitin protecting the forehead and cheekbones made a hethelax seem to be perpetually scowling. With this one, though, she could see how he had found her desirable. Her features were fine, if rather angular, and even her bent posture did not hide a quite fetching figure, which was well-displayed by a diaphonous garment in brown gauzy fabric not unlike a sundress in cut.

Hesthri’s eyes fixed on Natchua, and she switched smoothly to elvish in what was presumably the Scyllithene dialect.

“In a circle you can bend yourself and your own asshole chew upon until you can taste—”

“Tanglish,” Natchua interrupted in that language. “I understand your confusion, but no. You are in the Tiraan Empire, and won’t be meeting many drow apart from myself.”

At that, the hethelax hesitated, narrowing her golden eyes suspiciously. She answered in the same language, though. “Tiraas? Really?”

“The Empire,” Natchua repeated. “This is Mathenon, rather a long way from the capital.”

“Very well, then. Why in the Dark Lady’s name am I in Tiraas? You are overstepping your bounds, warlock. I am a servant of Princess Ixaavni, who does not take kindly to having her belongings tampered with. Send me back, or learn to fear her displeasure!”

“Well, this must be the one, all right,” Melaxyna drawled. “I never heard of a freshly-summoned demon being anything but delighted to be out of Hell.”

“Have you ever heard of this Ixaavni?” Natchua asked her.

The succubus shrugged. “Nope. That’s a khelminash name, though, and in the khelminash caste system hethelaxi are two steps above domestic livestock. Look, she’s got no tools, armor, or weapons, which means she’s not assigned any special use. I’d be amazed if this Princess gives half a shit about her going missing.”

“What about it, Hesthri?” Natchua inquired pleasantly. “Are you of any importance to your dear Princess?”

“She has no idea who I am and won’t miss me,” Hesthri replied immediately, and then scowled. “Oh, you conniving little twat. A truth compulsion ward built into a hethelax summons? Who does that?”

“My name is Natchua,” she said, folding her arms, “and I’ve called you here for a good and specific purpose.”

“I don’t care in the slightest, but I guess I’m not going anywhere until I hear you out, am I?”

“Very perceptive, Hesthri. I will explain in more detail in due time, but here’s the short version: I intend to punish Elilial herself for her overreaching, and toward that end I require the aid of trustworthy demons.”

Hesthri stared at her.

“No questions?” Natchua prompted lightly.

The hethelax turned to face Melaxyna and wordlessly pointed one finger at Natchua.

“I know,” the succubus said sympathetically. “Believe me, I know.”

“Okay, skipping the obvious,” Hesthri said with a heavy sigh. “If you want to kill yourself, fine, go nuts. But why me? If you think I am a trustworthy demon for this purpose, you’re even stupider than you already sound, and that’s really saying something. I am not going to join some demented crusade that’s only going to kill everyone involved. Even if I was, what good is one hethelax? You know we have no magic, right?”

“As I keep explaining to Melaxyna, here,” Natchua replied, “power is nothing. Trust is everything. You’re right, Elilial is far beyond me, and any force I could possibly conjure up. What matters is the situation. A great doom is coming, an important alignment at which the Dark Lady desperately needs everything to go her way. And yet, in the last handful of years, she has been handed a string of crushing defeats on the mortal plane. The Black Wreath has been viciously culled and is now on the run, and six of the seven of her own archdemons have been destroyed, right when she planned upon having their help. When the time comes, I will strike. It will be at a moment when all that is needed is one little thing to tip the balance. In that moment, it won’t matter what forces I have gathered, only that I can rely upon them to do what must be done, without being chivied, manipulated, or compelled by me.”

“Uh huh,” Hesthri said, manifestly unimpressed. “I still don’t care, though. I’m not your girl, warlock.”

“When you’ve been brought fully up to speed on the situation in the mortal world, you may feel differently,” Natchua said with a smile. “Of course, the important factor in this is your son.”

All expression immediately left Hesthri’s face. The demon stared at her, rigidly immobile and silent.

“That tense pause will be you struggling while under a truth compulsion to say you have no son, or some such,” Natchua stated, and couldn’t help but smirk at the twitch of Hesthri’s left eye in response. “Relax; I intend him no harm. Gabriel is…a friend of mine. Not a close one, but his well-being does matter to me. More important to you is the situation in which he finds himself. If you want to protect your son, you will help me bring down—”

She broke off, inwardly cursing herself. The sounds outside the basement door would have been inaudible to a human, but there was no such excuse for her elven senses. She had simply become wrapped up in the summoning and conversation, and missed the noise of feet on the stairs outside until too late.

“Melaxyna!” she barked, whirling. “The door!”

The succubus spun on command and got two steps toward it before the heavy door swung open and he stepped in, aiming a wand at them.

Everyone froze.

Jonathan Arquin’s eyes met Hesthri’s, then Natchua’s, and the blood drained from his face.

Hesthri emitted a little squeak totally unlike her previously defiant tone.

“Ooooh,” Melaxyna cooed, her tail beginning to wave behind her like a pleased cat’s. “Awk-warrrrrd.”

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Bonus #32: Deathspeaker, part 4

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“It really is the worst, isn’t it?” Arquin asked him in a low voice half an hour later.

Aresk turned to him, grunting with an upward inflection.

“Being useless,” the human said dryly, tilting his head at the two shaman at work. “There’s not a lot I hate more than standing around, watching people do the work. Not being able to contribute.”

“You keep blurting out things that make you sound almost like an orc,” Aresk grumbled. “It’s…disorienting. Anyway, this is a time for shaman magic, so…the shaman have to do it, and we have to watch. Shou ga nai.”

“C’est la vie,” Arquin replied lightly, and Aresk shot him an irritated look. He didn’t speak any Tanglish, and didn’t understand why the magic sword hadn’t translated that piece.

Raghann and Gairan were on their knees on the path to the shrine, facing it, with a cleared space around them laid out for their ritual purposes. Arquin had been intrigued that they had used chalk and dust to draw lines radiating from their position to various totems laid out around them, rather than defining a boundary circle. Talk of magic went over Aresk’s head, not to mention boring him, but fortunately and Raghann had peremptorily instructed Arquin to hush. At least the two of them were not alone in being excluded; the pair of robed death priests now lurked by the archway and the stairs, and the Battle Sisters had been called up to the shrine grounds to stand in a horseshoe formation around the ongoing magic.

Kyomi had her own respectful bubble of space off to the side, and simply stood in serene quiet. Aresk noted, now, that her black kimono and the katana she carried were both reminiscent of Battle Sister attire, though hers of course had no Avenic sigil. He wondered at the significance of that; it seemed impossible that there was none.

So they all stood, Aresk feeling chiefly conscious of his own impatience. Almost no one else present revealed any discomfort with being made to wait. The death priests were inscrutable as always, the Battle Sisters a very picture of discipline, and of course Kyomi was functionally older than time and without doubt could occupy herself with her own thoughts for far longer than this. That Arquin was the only person here with whom he felt any kinship was as amusing as it was annoying. Aresk hadn’t gotten over his antipathy toward the human, but he was beginning to appreciate the irony of it.

“Someone answers,” Raghann whispered suddenly, and there was a flicker of motion at the shrine.

Aresk snapped his attention to it, narrowing his eyes. Nothing was there, still, but for just a moment he thought he could see the outline of the doorway Kyomi had opened. By instinct, he lifted his hand ax from its loop at his belt. Foolish, of course; he was probably the least physically dangerous person here, even with the valkyries having been sent away at Raghann’s insistence. But still, if there was danger, an orc should have a weapon in hand.

A second flicker, a flat piece of space in front of the shrine rippling like a puddle touched by a leaf.

Then, without further warning, the thing burst out.

The creature was nothing created by nature; it was lopsided, one of its arms overly long and with fingers extending back upward like the bones of a bat’s wing. It supported itself on the knuckles of that hand and the mass of writhing tentacles it had instead of legs. The other arm was of more proportional length, but ended in a thick paw with seven fingers of mismatched size, each tipped by a disproportionately large, serrated claw. The top of its head was apparently missing, leaving only a flat surface above its slavering mouth—which had upthrust lower tusks, just like an orc.

Then the second mass of tentacles atop its stunted head rose up and shifted forward from having been flattened back against its skull, revealing that they were tipped in eyeballs.

Gairan made a little sound for which Aresk wouldn’t have condemned her even had he not been so fond of her. Arquin pulled a wand from the deep pocket of his coat.

“Brother!” Raghann declaimed, spreading her arms wide as though to embrace the monstrosity. “…or sister. This is a safe place. Be welcome here.”

The creature surged forward a few feet, and Aresk instinctively did likewise. It moved with a strange gait, tugging itself along on that one overlong arm while its mess of tendrils supported it, but even so it moved fast for such an ungainly creature.

All around them came the avid hiss of steel as the Battle Sisters unsheathed their swords in unison.

The monster stopped, however, its eyeballs pivoting to take them all in, its head pointing at Raghann. It opened its jaws to extend a wide, flat tongue, with which it appeared to taste the air.

“We feel your pain,” Raghann said, gazing up at the beast without fear. “We feel your anger. We offer you respite, and the hope of healing. Let go of—”

It screamed at her—or roared, it was hard to tell as it had three distinct voices making different noises simultaneously. Then it charged. Not at Raghann, this time, but to her left, at Gairan.

Aresk crossed the ground in three rapid strides, planting himself between the shaman and the monster, and roared a wordless challenge back at it.

Rather to his surprise, the thing stopped its advance, close enough it could have reached out to grab him with its longer arm. It flexed its jaws, screaming right back at him. He braced his feet and lifted his axe, leaning toward it and baring all his teeth in a bellow of pure fury.

The monster stopped, tilting its head inquisitively. Aresk couldn’t guess which eyeball to look at, so he stared at a point right above its mouth.

“Boy, get out of the way,” Raghann ordered from behind him.

Aresk ignored her apparently suicidal demand, not taking his attention off the monster. It swayed slowly from side to side, and he tracked it with his eyes. The beast bared fangs, growling at him, and he did the same right back.

Then it actually settled backward slightly, seeming to consider him in earnest.

“Move!” Raghann snapped, prodding him from behind with her staff.

“Mother Raghann,” Gairan began, “maybe he—”

“Trust your elders, both of you,” she said curtly. “I know what I’m doing.”

Aresk didn’t see how she could possibly know what she was doing, since what they were all doing had no precedent in the history of the world. Still, rather than try to fight on two fronts, he began easing to the side. Keeping his pace carefully slow but his steps firm, not showing weakness by signaling a retreat, but deliberately not making aggressive moves. He had done this dance many a time with other orcs; it was all part of getting to know a stranger in any circumstance when it was not certain who was dominant. This was how matters were first settled whenever he encountered orcs from other clans while away from Camp Khashrek on a hunt.

The monster mirrored his movements in its weird shuffling gait, circling around slowly in the other direction. He might have suspected it was going around him to get at the shaman, but it kept its focus firmly on him, right where he wanted it. The movements were all so bizarrely familiar.

“Lost one,” Raghann said earnestly once she had a clear line of sight to the creature, “we implore you to be at peace.”

Aresk didn’t risk taking his eyes off the beast, but narrowed them in disapproval. Something in this twisted abomination still thought like an orc, that much he could tell from the way it acted. Orcs did not implore each other. She was treating it like one of the human spirits or yokai that sometimes went wandering on Tsurikura and had to be coaxed back to rest. That was a big part of a shaman’s role in their society, now. But here…

“This is a place of safety,” Raghann continued in a soothing voice. “A place of rest. We are your kin, long lost but not forgotten. Please find—”

The monster abruptly rounded on her with a truly horrific scream, raising its many-clawed hand to strike the old shaman. Aresk lunged at it, drawing back his own axe to attack.

Arquin was faster and, having circled around the shaman during the confrontation, closer. He was also no longer holding a wand, somehow, but a scythe of gnarled, blackened wood, whose gleaming blade he planted right in the center of the monstrosity’s chest.

It collapsed in on itself like a rotting mushroom, its bulk crumpling, disintegrating into dust, and emitting a cloud of mist which seemed made more of light than particulate matter. It swirled away back toward the portal, though some seemed to be sucked in by the scythe.

Aresk stared fixedly until the last of it had vanished. It was for the most fleeting moment, so briefly he was half-convinced he had imagined it, but for just that instant he had been certain he’d seen the shape of an orc in the swirling vapor. Nodding to him, one hunter acknowledging another.

“What have you done?” Raghann demanded furiously, rising to her feet.

“He saved our lives, that’s what,” Gairan snapped. “That thing was not going to listen to you, elder.”

“That thing was one of our people!”

“And now they’re at peace,” Arquin said calmly, planting the butt of his scythe on the ground, “for the first time in a century. But that still wasn’t the outcome we’re looking for, here. What went wrong?”

The old shaman drew in a deep breath, then let it out slowly, mastering her anger. “It was the first try. We cannot expect everything to go our way all at once, not with something like this. Well. Now we know we can reach them across the gateway. We must figure out how to calm them enough that they will listen. That lost spirit was utterly maddened with rage and grief, trapped in a twisted form it hated. It had forgotten how to be an orc.”

“Then how do we remind them?” Gairan asked.

“That is what we must figure out, isn’t it?” Raghann replied. “When in doubt, a shaman always has ways of seeking answers. We must consult the spirits for advice. Familiar spirits, known to us already. They do not often provide answers outright, but they will point us in the right direction to begin asking.” While Gairan nodded agreement, the older shaman turned a baleful look on Aresk, followed by a pointing finger. “And you will refrain from interfering next time, young man.”

“The creature you summoned was going to kill you, Mother Raghann,” he retorted. “I stopped it. You’re welcome. Listen, the way you were going about trying to calm it—”

“Ahp!” She held up a hand, turning her face away from him in one of those exceedingly rude gestures for which she was known that would get anyone but the eldest of his clan summarily punched in the eye. “I do you the courtesy of not telling you how to trap and skin beasts. The difference between us is that I know my limitations and respect them, boy. Don’t lecture me about calming agitated spirits!”

“That thing was well beyond agitated,” he insisted, “and calming it was exactly the wrong thing to do!”

“Now, you listen to me,” Raghann began in a dangerous tone.

“Excuse me?” Arquin interrupted, frowning. “I don’t know that I agree with Aresk, either, but Kyomi-sama herself chose him for this task. I’m pretty sure that summarily brushing him off is not called for.”

“That’s right,” Gairan agreed, nodding in approval at Aresk.

Once again, Raghann’s shoulders lifted with a slow inhalation, and once again she repressed whatever she’d been about to erupt with. The contrast between her and Arkhosh had never been more striking, even with one of them miles away.

“First, we seek wisdom,” she grunted at last, turning her back on Aresk and kneeling again in her ritual diagram. “Perhaps the spirits’ advice will shed some light on the young hunter’s. Come, Gairan, I will need your focus.”

Aresk snorted, but quietly, and fortunately neither shaman reacted to him. He retreated a few steps to the edge of the nearest row of graves, turning a thoughtful stare upon the inconspicuous spot where that terrible gate lay invisible.

Arquin circled around the shaman back the other way, approaching him. At some point while Aresk’s eyes were off him he’d made that scythe disappear. All this magic was enough to give a man a headache…

“What do you think?” the human asked very quietly, coming to stand next to Aresk.

He hesitated before answering, gathering his thoughts and turning a pensive stare on Gairan and Raghann.

“I don’t blindly do whatever my father says, you know.” he murmured at last. “It’s not just love that makes me favor him and his views over Mother Raghann’s. I remember growing up in a clan where they were both authority figures. I remember her always trying to…calm me down. Lecturing about the hot blood of youth, telling me to take long walks or forcing me into lessons on meditating, of all the boring claptrap.”

“Mm,” Arquin grunted. “The condescension of smart old people is universal across cultures, I guess.”

Aresk nodded. “My father taught me how to cope like an orc. He gave me work to do, to tire me out. Or deliberately set me up to brawl with other young people till we worked it out of our systems. He’d even fight me himself when he found it necessary.”

Arquin was giving him a strange look, as if to say that clearly not everything was universal across cultures. Aresk was familiar enough with the Sifanese not to need that explained.

“Raghann is right about one thing,” he said softly. “If that monster is what’s left in Athan’Khar now, they have forgotten how to be orcs. She was wrong about what to do, though. You don’t calm that kind of anger. Especially not when it’s justified. That just makes it worse.”

“I’m pretty sure you don’t get in punching matches with it, either,” Arquin said.

“Only the young among us fight over every little thing,” Aresk mused, his eyes distant. “We’re not savages, Arquin, nor are we monsters. We feel and express things more acutely than your kind, but we do have a society, which wouldn’t function if everyone was always lashing out. We have our ways. Ways to express, to cope, to get along. Ways that are not what she was trying to do with that beast. Raghann has the same problem. She’s forgotten how to be an orc. She’s the heir of a hundred years of Sifanese influence. The spirits of Athan’Khar are the remains of a hundred years of rage. Her ways will never make them listen.”

Arquin turned a speculative look on Raghann. Both shaman had their backs to them and were chanting over a burning pile of something that smelled acridly herbal.

“There is absolutely no way,” the human said thoughtfully, “anything useful would result from trying to explain that to her.”

“The condescension of smart old people,” Aresk agreed, then took a deep breath. “Arquin. Man to man, if I was to do something that seemed crazy, maybe even suicidal, could I count on you not to interfere?”

The human gave him a sidelong look, his expression unreadable. “That depends on what crazy thing we’re talking about, and more importantly, why you’re doing it.”

Aresk chanced a glance at Kyomi, and found her watching him with a faint little smile. Catching his eye, she winked.

“I feel I know what to do,” he said softly. “And nobody’s going to like it. Especially not me.”

“That’s it? You feel?”

“This is about feelings. Every part of it. It’s about anger, and hate, and grief, and hope. How to deal with them. Raghann can’t do it.”

“But you can.” Aresk couldn’t fault him for the skepticism in his voice.

“I don’t know, Arquin. But I know what to try.”

He sighed. “Gairan’s going to kick my ass if you get yourself killed.”

“Yes, she will,” Aresk said, grinning a grin that was at least as much repressed terror as amusement. He had to deny the fear welling up or it would paralyze him. “Listen, it’s like you showed me last night. Sometimes you can’t fight head on. But you have to be willing to stand and let your enemy come to grips before you can…push them aside.”

“I’m gonna regret this, I know it,” Arquin muttered. “Look, whatever madness you’re thinking of, do it as carefully as you can. Take it slow and think it over.”

Aresk clapped him on the shoulder, almost hard enough to knock him over. “Not a chance.”

Then he burst into a sprint, even though it was sure to draw the attention of the shaman and risk them stopping him somehow. There was no way around it; if he tried to approach this slowly, he would never be able to see it through.

Sure enough, they noticed.

“Aresk!” Gairan shouted in horror, and then he plunged through the gate.


Suddenly it was dark, and it took Aresk an embarrassing few moments to realize that that was because he’d just traveled a significant distance around the planet, and not due to any magic. It was a forgivable mistake, though, as everything else within his view bore the taint of magic in the worst possible way.

The darkness was not absolute; that might have been preferable. Athan’Khar’s very atmosphere seemed to have a sulfurous glow, hanging over the horizon and casting shifting patterns of inexplicable shadow all around. Aresk’s immediate environment was clearly a shrine—an orcish shrine, not the Sifanese Vidian holy ground he’d just left. Behind him stood a gateway, a physical one in which Kyomi had clearly positioned her magic portal. Massive stone pillars towered over twenty feet, with another laid atop them, all square-carved and deeply engraved with intricate knotwork. In fact, when he looked closer, the lines seemed to be filled with a dark glassy material like obsidian.

Boundaries and gateways were important in the Kharsa people’s traditional shamanism, setting aside areas like the ceremonial grounds back in Camp Khashrek where specific codes of behavior applied. A free-standing ceremonial gate not part of a boundary was used for rituals of transition—namings, rites of adulthood, marriages, funerals, the elevation of shaman, and so on. This one had clearly served a sizable community, to judge by the baskets of offerings laid around its base. After a hundred years they were all rotted to barely-identifiable scraps. It was unsettling that the ancient grains, hides, trinkets and weapons had all rotted and dried up to virtually residue, but nothing had been tampered with by scavengers. All of it lay shriveled up exactly where it had been placed.

At least the gate and its grounds were clear. It was positioned in a hollow surrounded by forested hills, with a road leading out of the space between two hills just in front of him. The trees, though… They were twisted. Their shapes rose up from the ground like grasping fingers, coiled around themselves with leafless branches clutching at each other, or reaching skyward. In fact, he realized with horror as his eyed adjusted to the low light, it wasn’t his mind playing tricks: those branches ended in the actual shapes of hands. Long and skeletal, but unmistakable.

There was a patch of nearly-dead yellowish grass around the ancient gateway, but beyond that, the ground cover looked more like patches of mold whose color he couldn’t make out in the dimness, interspersed with spiky little bushes that bristled with thorns, and stands of mushrooms taller than his waist, with fat round caps too big for their scrawny stalks, causing them to list drunkenly in all directions.

Aresk had the grace of just a few moments to slowly turn around, getting his bearings and taking in the sights, such as they were. Then it started.

At first he thought it was the wind, but the sound kept rising, and became impossible to misinterpret: it was moaning. It came from the woods all around, undulating gently and shifting this way and that. No sooner had he begun to make sense of the noise than a glow followed it, an eerie pale illumination which seemed out of the trees at irregular intervals, casting a foggy light across the clearing.

And, incidentally, revealing that the spiky bushes were covered with tiny skulls. Aresk couldn’t tell if they grew that way or were impaled on the spines.

The gate was right there, behind him. He could step back through. Gairan and Raghann would berate him to no end for his stupidity, and worse, he would look like a coward… But he would be alive and not turned into another undead horror.

No.

Aresk, son of Arkhosh of the High Wind clan, was an orc. He would retreat when it was wise, but not when pushed by fear. Not without at least trying what he had come here to do.

He raised his ax high, threw back his head, and roared a long, ululating challenge at the nightmares all around him.

Screams, howls, and unearthly cacophony of all sorts immediately answered him, accompanied by movement among the lights in the trees. And then they came forth.

After the first glance he stopped trying to make sense of the misshapen limbs, tentacles, impossible claws and hideously warped biology of the beasts that emerged from the forest. None of them belonged in this world, that much was plain. By and large they were pale like cave salamanders, as if even the sun did not bother to touch Athan’Khar anymore.

At least they didn’t keep him waiting.

The shapes approached in no hurry, shuffling and loping with a variety of lopsided gaits, closing in from all sides on the patch of clear space around the gateway.

Aresk brandished his ax and bellowed a challenge at them.

From every direction, howling answered him. He was surrounded utterly by death and its uglier cousins, fixed on adding him to their ranks. The terror of it alone was enough to crush the spirit.

He pushed aside terror, embracing rage.

And then the whispers began.

They were beyond the edge of hearing, not intelligible, but more the sense of voices in his ears. Even without discerning words, he felt the message. Senseless fury, unrelenting agony, grief and hatred. Entreaties—demands—that he join them. Intentions to make him do so. The monsters came, one step and slither and stumble at a time, their voices worming deep into his mind, voices of their twisted spirits rather than their twisted bodies.

In those voices, he found what he needed. Shaman had come here and been swept up by these abominations, and though Aresk did not know exactly what they had tried, he suspected the shape of it from having watched Raghann. That would never work. This rage could not be calmed. It could not be resisted.

So, instead of resisting, he opened himself to it. Aresk drank in their pain and fury, feeling the stab of its agony in his own heart. Then, he added to it, calling up every memory of his father’s speeches about their people’s lost past, about the importance of the old ways. About their eternal hatred of the Tiraan.

The howling and snarling rose, all around and within him. Aresk did not deny them their rage; he joined them in it.

Raising his face to the yellowish sky, he roared again, a long and wild exhalation of pure ferocity. The fury pounding in him was more than his mere body could expel, but he tried anyway. He wrapped the bottomless well of rage around himself like a river in which he swam, drew it through his own spirit, and poured it out with his voice, howling and roaring until his throat ached.

And they joined him in turn. The creatures stopped advancing, halting where they were, and raised their voices higher.

Aresk was no longer afraid of them. He was one with them. A living part of the anguish and anger that animated this land and its denizens.

They screamed at the sky, pouring forth their fury at what they had lost. At the pain that wracked them still. Their helplessness, their betrayal.

Then he took it a step further, adding the anger and humiliation of their living cousins in Sifan. Every memory he could conjure—not the recollections of events, but the emotions of it. The reality of living at the indulgence of a greater nation, in the shadow of their own destruction. The helpless humiliation that was the existence of the last of the Kharsa.

The roaring around him rose further. It spread outward, now. The noise was already more than his mere ears could make sense of, but Aresk was linked now to this land and these voices in a way he didn’t quite understand, and he could feel them rippling across all of Athan’Khar, a million broken horrors screaming in unison. They would hear this in Viridill and N’Jendo.

He had dropped his ax, raising his arms to the heavens and howling at them. And as Aresk taught these lost ancestors the feelings of their people now, the temper of their screaming changed. Pain rose up through the anger, grief and loss, until it fully covered their fury.

They screamed at the night. Sobbed and wailed, expelling the agony of history’s greatest atrocity, and the century of pain which had followed. It poured out without cease, an entire shattered nation crying as one voice.

He couldn’t have said how long it went on. At one point, he fell to his knees. At another, he became conscious of tears gushing down his face. Aresk topped forward, clawing at the earth of Athan’Khar, pounding his fists against it in helplessness.

And slowly, eventually, it came to a stop. First with him, as his voice eventually gave out from sheer physical strain. And then, spreading outward, quiet rippled from that one forgotten gateway shrine to the farthest reaches of the lost country.

The pain was not gone. That pain would never be gone. That anger could not be washed away. It was there…but it had been given the chance to express itself, and somehow, Aresk and his undead nation had exhausted themselves until they couldn’t scream any more, not even within.

There was quiet. All the agony and fury lay there, not lost, but dormant for the moment. For a while, he and they simply…were. Together.

And Aresk found other memories.

The stories told of Athan’Khar, of its great heroes and wild rituals. Of the land—a good, rich land, rugged and dangerous but vibrantly alive. Its ridges and hills carpeted with pines, brushed by cold winds and harsh winters. The elk and goats and wolves and beavers and cougars and all the living things among whom the Kharsa lived, taking what they needed with appreciation and respect, accepting it with honor when nature took from them in turn.

Towering, craggy mountains, the southernmost arm of the Wyrnrange extending down from the human lands almost to the tundra in the deep south. Glaciers tracking their infinitesimal progress across the southern reaches. Mighty waterfalls and gushing rivers, fed by countless living streams. The rocky cliffs of the western coast and the smoother shores of the east, where the Cold Spray clan had fished and traded with visitors from the world over.

The auroras dancing in the night sky, a sight Aresk had never seen and could scarcely imagine. Stories of the lights last glimpsed generations ago could not possibly capture their wonder or beauty. But at the thought of them, he was shown. All around him were spirits who had seen those lights, and their clarity exploded into his mind, memories adding to his own. They were more glorious than he could have imagined.

He wept anew for the lost beauty of his land, kneeling and pressing his forehead into the dirt. Soft keening rose around him, but it was only from a few points, now, and far gentler in tone.

Athan’Khar, their beautiful country. It was not forgotten.

Aresk had the strangest sensation for just a moment, as if the world moved under him. As though he stood not upon solid ground, but on the back of some great turtle which had just taken a ponderous step.

And before he could process that, another memory came to him. A memory of humans.

He saw women of every color in which they came, dark Westerners, pale Stalweiss, tawny Tiraan, many others, the Sisters of Viridill. And in those memories of the horror that came with the Enchanter’s Bane, they were joined.

He heard cries of shock and grief in thin human voices, dainty little faces with expressions twisted with rage. Hands extended with compassion.

Hands taking up weapons.

The Sisterhood turning around in the middle of war, closing ranks with their enemies and turning the force of their fury upon the Imperial Army. The broken Kharsa armies and Silver Legionnaires slamming into the Tiraan and sweeping them aside, till not a one darkened Viridill’s borders.

Aresk understood, and reciprocated.

He called up images of the Sifanese, the polite and distant people so different from the rough and vibrant orcs. The boisterous and cheerful Punaji who came to trade with them, both goods and stories, and who never looked down on orcs, or even askance at them. The creepy Vidian priests and serene Battle Sisters who joined them from time to time on Tsurikura. The various Sifanese outcasts who came to spend time among the Kharsa, learning their ways and teaching them what they knew in turn.

Gabriel Arquin, the strangely orc-like young man, with his valkyries and his dark two-faced god, determined not to leave the crimes of the past where they lay.

Humanity in all its complexity, and the truth that there were friends out there in the world. Souls who would stand shoulder to shoulder with the orcs against true evil. Who did not judge or reject, even when the great powers among them demanded that they should.

Not to try to calm away the rage like Raghann wanted, but to fight together.

Slowly, they slunk away. The hivemind of broken spirits was not a thing which could make decisions, and certainly not change its ways; Aresk had not healed anything. But he had added to it. There was something new coursing through the veins of Athan’Khar’s warped collective psyche now: hope.

Monsters retreated back through the trees, leaving him untouched upon the ground before the shrine. Gradually, the awareness of their thought, their inner voices, ebbed away as well.

Behind them they left exhaustion like nothing Aresk had ever felt. He slumped over onto his side, lacking even the energy to support himself.

And there, lying stretched out upon the ground as if to embrace it, he felt it again. That great, subtle shifting. Something colossal beneath the tortured spirit of the land which began to stir at his touch.

You understand.

The words were Kharsa, whispering through his mind like the voices of the damned, but much clearer. The intelligence behind them strained and wounded, but not so badly distorted.

You are an orc. You know how we must heal. Not through rest, but through battle.

Aresk drew in a breath, rasping around his painfully strained vocal cords. “Who are you?”

Anything that lives may die, son of the Kharsa. But for gods, even death is a different thing.

“Khar,” he whispered into the very dirt, too wrung out even to feel as awed as this situation called for.

Light rose around him—warm and gentle light. Aresk found the energy to push himself up to his hands and knees, weakly raising his head to behold the gate.

The lines of Kharsa knotwork inscribed on the shrine were no longer dormant black glass, but glowing softly with pale golden light. The touch of divine magic, no longer tainted by the Enchanter’s Bane, had returned to Athan’Khar. At least to this one tiny spot.

And where it could touch once, it could spread.

Our people have remembered their ways as best they can, I see it in your mind. We have still our shaman. But there have been no priests of Khar. There can be no priests of a dead god.

Unless the god of death extends a hand to help.

“What must I do?” he asked hoarsely.

The ways which have been lost must be found again. New ways must be walked in a new world. It begins with you: the first to understand how the lost souls of the Kharsa can be spoken with. Teach others. Continue to meet with them. Take from them the pain they offer. Give to them the healing you must gather into yourself. Be one with them—as orcs. Let them remember who they are, Deathspeaker.

You must find peace, in order to give peace.

We must have peace, in order to fight the battles that will come.

Aresk gathered his strength, rising unsteadily to his feet. Around him, bathed in the divine glow of the shrine, the green grass had rejuvenated itself in just minutes, forming a lush carpet of life. At the very edges of the glow, spikes and skulls began to melt from a few bushes like frost under the sun. Giant mushrooms were slowly shrinking, revealing hints of the mundane toadstools nature had meant for them to be.

“I will,” he vowed, pounding a fist into his heart. “I…do not know the way. But I will find it. We will find it.”

Above him, the moon broke through the haze, and the yellowish cast of the light gently faded. In that one place, there was the first touch of healing.


Gairan hugged him first. Then she punched him. Aresk let her do it three times before catching her fist.

“I truly did not think we would ever see you again, boy,” Raghann said unsteadily, approaching. He was surprised to see her face hollowed and tear-streaked; it was a reminder that for all his points of disagreement with the old shaman, she cared for him as she did for any of their clan.

“God damn I’m glad you’re back,” Arquin added fervently. “And…what’s all this, then?”

He gestured, and Aresk straightened his back, burying self-consciousness beneath pride, as was the way of the Kharsa. He couldn’t quite explain the origin of his clothes; he’d just been wearing them when he turned to step back through the gate. Instead of his simple hunter’s garb, he was dressed in a coarse robe draped with a mantle of raven feathers, a crown of horns and antlers lying atop his head. Regalia of a kind the orcs had not seen in a century: that of their long-broken priesthood.

Wrapping an arm around Gairan’s shoulders as she pressed herself into his side, Aresk closed his eyes, concentrating. He found it within, the soft glow accompanied by the sluggish, almost-lost sense of a dead god just beginning to remember life. And the sharp pain of the countless shattered spirits of their homeland, inextricably bound with the power.

But it came, nonetheless, and a glow rose around him, the pale golden-white aura of divine magic.

Raghann’s gasp of shock was deeply gratifying. Kyomi’s knowing chuckle less so, but he knew better than to give the kitsune a reaction.

“Well, blow me down,” Arquin breathed. “You found a way.”

“Not yet.” Aresk shook his head, and then smiled. “But we’ve found a way to begin.”

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Bonus #31: Deathspeaker, part 3

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Aresk had never hesitated in a fight in his life, but he had also never felt so out of control of himself. He didn’t remember deciding to hit Arquin; he specifically recalled deciding not to. So he halted, uncertainly, with his fist still extended and the human staggering away, barely keeping on his feet after that first punch.

“Damn, you guys really do hit hard,” Arquin commented, catching his balance and straightening up. He was neither bruised nor bleeding. “Well, can’t say I didn’t ask for it. How well can you do without sucker-punching someone?”

That conveniently resolved Aresk’s personal dilemma. With a wordless roar, he charged forward, completely in agreement with himself now on the matter of pummeling Gabriel Arquin.

Amazingly, the human just stood there and watched him come. Were they slow as well as frail? Aresk swung a wild haymaker and Arquin soaked it up right on the ear, staggering sideways. He only just avoided falling, but Aresk kept after him, launching punches at his head and chest.

Even through the fog of his fury, he quickly realized that something was wrong, here. The human was just standing there; he only exerted himself to stay upright while Aresk knocked him around the clearing. He didn’t fight back, or dodge, or even block. After a few frenetic seconds in which he landed enough uncontested hits to have put even another orc on his back in the dust, Aresk paused, fists still upraised, squinting at Arquin in the firelight.

He still looked…fine. The man didn’t have a mark on him, not so much as a drop of blood.

“Good,” Arquin said briskly during Aresk’s hesitation, straightening his coat. “Good power, decent speed. I can see you don’t get in a lot of serious fights, though.”

“Gabriel,” Gairan warned, but the human kept on talking.

“Everything’s in your upper body, and that won’t do if somebody fights you back,” Arquin said. “Balance is the first and most important thing in a fight, and yours is terrible. Look, start with a stance. You want your feet shoulder-width apart, with your knees slightly flexed, and put your weight—”

The sheer condescension of it was enough to drive Aresk almost senseless with fury. His bellow of rage split the evening and he lunged, drawing back his fist for a blow that would have cracked a tree.

He barely saw what happened, but somehow Arquin shifted just a hair out of the way, caught his arm, and spun them both around, using Aresk’s own momentum to hurl him bodily across the clearing. The came up against the trunk of an oak so hard it shook and deposited a shower of acorns on them all.

“What?” he choked, stumbling back and whirling around, fists up to block. The human hadn’t pressed his advantage, though; he was still just standing there.

“Aw, that’s nothing,” Arquin said modestly. “You should meet my friend Toby, he’d have you on your knees with your arms in a knot by now.”

Baring the full extent of his tusks, Aresk surged toward him again, fist upraised.

Then he stopped. Without lowering his arm, he stared at the inexplicably unruffled human.

“Now that,” Gabriel said, pointing at him, “is your first tactically correct decision.”

Even realizing how easily he was being baited, Aresk couldn’t help himself. He at least changed his approach this time, shifting his motion to deliver a powerful uppercut which Arquin didn’t even try to avoid. The orc’s fist hit him right under the chin, lifting him a full yard off the ground and finally sending him to the dirt on his back.

The next moment, he snapped both his feet around Aresk’s right leg in some kind of lock; pushing on his ankle with one foot and pulling his knee with the other, he forced the leg to buckle and sent Aresk staggering down to a kneeling position.

While he was still reeling for balance, Arquin rolled deftly back to his feet. Aresk shot upright the instant he physically could.

The two of them stared at each other in the firelight, neither moving.

“What are you doing?” Aresk demanded harshly.

“Making a point,” Arquin said in total calm.

“How are you doing this?” he roared.

“Haven’t you ever seen the Sifanese fight?” Arquin asked with a good-natured little smile. “This is nothing. When I passed through Kiyosan I asked a sailor to show me some of the martial arts he was bragging about and my ass was in the harbor before I realized he’d touched me. And that was just some guy, not a master or anything.”

“We don’t fight the Sifanese,” Raghann commented, “but both karate and kendo are known to us…just not to Aresk, here. His father would never stand for him studying human arts. I think that is not the point he was curious about, though.”

“Why aren’t you hurt?” Aresk demanded.

“He’s a demonblood.” Gairan was staring up at him with a faint frown; neither she nor Mother Raghann had moved from their seats during the fight. “Part hethelax. You would need magic to make him bleed, Aresk.”

Aresk could only gape at her for a moment. And then at Arquin.

“You—that—how long were—”

“It isn’t news,” Gairan said, frowning more deeply. “He told us this earlier today. I thought it was strange you didn’t respond, but I thought you must have heard. It’s not the kind of revelation someone just…glosses over.”

“So this is how you fight?” Aresk snarled at Arquin. “With magic and trickery?”

“Blood isn’t something you can just turn off,” the human pointed out. “Unless you know something I don’t. In which case, sure, show me how to stop being invulnerable, then you stop being twice my size, strength, and sturdiness, and we can try a rematch. That sounds fair, right?”

Aresk took a step closer to him. “And now you’re making fun of me?”

“Like I said, I’m making a point,” Arquin replied, still infuriatingly calm. “This is why peace matters. The Enchanter’s Bane is widely considered the worst weapon ever created and the Empire has long since destroyed the methods, records, and anybody who knew how to build one, but weapons have still advanced. If we’re to restore Athan’Khar and the Kharsa people to it, they can’t live as they did before. Constant war with your neighbors is not an option, they would crush you. The way you live now, with the Sifanese, is a much better path. Why would you ever want to go back?”

“Why? Because battle makes us strong!” Aresk raged, clenching his fists at his sides.

“Your people haven’t fought a battle in a hundred years. Does that make you weak?”

“You didn’t even land one hit on me!”

“Yes, that’s correct,” Arquin said simply. “I didn’t. And do you feel like you’ve won, here?”

Aresk physically vibrated with the repressed urge to punch him again. He repressed it because the effort would have been completely wasted. And the urge kept rising, because that was exactly the human’s—half-human’s—point. Somehow, he had worked himself into a corner where he did not understand what kind of fight he was in and everything he might do meant he would lose.

Finally, taking the only route he saw left, Aresk turned and stalked off into the darkening forest.


Full dark had long descended by the time she found him.

Aresk had seated himself on the horizontal remains of what had once been a massive tree, staring into the night and listening to the constant noise of crickets and owls. He heard her coming, of course; she made no attempt to disguise her approach. Still, he just sat, staring at nothing, while she circled around the log and finally took a seat alongside him upon it.

For a while, they were simply there. She waited for him.

“Is the world going to be like that, then?” Aresk said suddenly, still not looking at her. “That was… There was nothing I could do to him. I felt helpless. I have not felt helpless since my mother died.”

“The world was already like that, Aresk,” Gairan replied quietly. “We’ve been in no position to fight anyone since we settled here. The Sifanese would surely crush us if we gave them a reason.”

“But they don’t,” he whispered. “Because…they have no reason.”

She said nothing.

“And that’s it, then,” he finally breathed. “The last, true death of who we were. My father and those who agree with him are always talking about reclaiming our place, restoring the old ways… But even if the Deathspeaker’s plan works and we can re-settle our true home, there’s no going back, is there? We can’t test ourselves against the humans. Our history is truly dead.”

“Death begets life,” she said. “We can’t be what we used to be, but that doesn’t make us nothing.”

“And that’s what I’ve been sitting here, thinking about. What are we? Here, we’re…caretakers, guests. Tolerated as long as we are inoffensive and useful, but not wanted. It’s not our place, we don’t belong, and the Sifanese never let us forget it. In Athan’Khar we were strong, feared… But we can’t become that again. We can’t stay, and can’t return. What are we to become, Gairan?”

“I don’t know, Aresk.” She shifted closer to him and reached up to put an arm around his shoulders. “But I know that we can become something. My clan has people like your father and Mother Raghann, too, people who are obsessed with either restoring the old ways or resigning ourselves to our place here. Always one or the other, those are the two positions. The more age and wisdom someone has, I think, the less they can see past their own point of view. But you’re here, thinking about what we should do. That’s what will save us—finding a new path. I’ve never respected a man more.”

Slowly, he leaned against her, and she pressed her weight into him in reply.

“So the Jendi still hate us,” he murmured. “I wonder what makes the difference. He didn’t say the Viridi do…”

“Did your father ever tell you how we worked with the Sisterhood?”

“He said the Kharsa and the Avenists tested themselves against each other, and made each other stronger.”

“There are other stories, that are less widely known now,” she said. “The traditionalists in my clan don’t like to hear them. But there were Kharsa heroes all through the Age of Adventures. Whenever a great demon lord or warlock or necromancer rose, headhunters were called and sent to destroy them alongside Chosen of Avei and Omnu and Salyrene. In the Hellwars, in plagues of undeath, in every great disaster, Athan’Khar sent armies. Our people raged against evil and cut it down wherever it rose. All that which hunted humanity feared us. The Avenists appeciated our strength, and appreciated the wars that honed us. They are a people of purpose. But the Jendi…they just wanted to live in their own land.”

Gairan hesitated, then gave him a gentle shake.

“We were strong with the humans as much as against them, Aresk. We’ve gained strength from the Sifanese, whether they like it or not. We can’t be as we were and we can’t go on as we are, but we can still be strong. We are a strong people, and that won’t change. It’s just a matter of finding a new way to be strong, in this new world. The Deathspeaker presents an opportunity, but I think the most important thing he said was about keeping Tiraas from taking over the recovery. We have to find our own way, and not let it be found for us.”

“You’re right.” Aresk wrapped an arm around her, pulling her close. “You are right. I just…I wish I knew how.”

“Keep thinking, Aresk. Keep watching, and you’ll find it. I believe that about you.”

If she believed it, he would have to make it so. And that was all there was to it.


At least the next day’s walk was quieter.

Neither Arquin nor Raghann said anything about the previous night’s events. The old shaman managed to convey without a word that she knew and understood everything about everyone’s business, which was nothing new; Aresk was beginning to wonder whether she actually had any such insight or had just perfected the art of seeming like it over the years. The human, for his part, was as polite and friendly as ever, when spoken to. He mostly left them alone, however.

This time, Gairan walked alongside Aresk the whole time, to his delight. What had passed between them last night had not explicitly settled anything, but it had clearly made a great difference in a way he didn’t quite understand yet. The two of them didn’t talk much, leaving the group to its quiet. For now, it was good enough.

Their destination was reached shortly before noon. Aresk, being of course very familiar with the area surrounding Camp Khashrek, had discerned where they were going by midday yesterday: the disused Vidian shrine sat atop the center of a slightly curved ridge, which had been carved into terraces entirely taken up now by a cemetery. A single stretch of stone stairs led straight to the shrine itself from the base, with paths branching off it at intervals leading among the quiet graves. He himself had avoided this place, though his hunts had repeatedly brought him near it; the maintenance of Tsurikura’s protected sites was the work of the clans’ shaman, and the Vidian priests who periodically traveled to the island to conduct their rituals.

The area around the base of the cemetery hill was clear of trees, and the small party emerged from the forest to find it already occupied. Preparations had clearly been made in advance, to judge by the warriors taking up obvious guard positions around the small meadow. These were not Queen’s samurai in armor, but Battle Sisters, women whose black robes bore Avei’s eagle sigil in golden embroidery. All their attention shifted to the three orcs and their human companion was the group stepped out of the treeline, but none moved to intercept them. Clearly, they were expected.

Each of the orcs nodded respectfully to the Battle Sister they passed closest to, a younger woman with particularly fine features. Arquin gave her a broad smile and offered a greeting.

“Konnichiwa!”

Her eyes slid right past him, and her hand found its way to the handle of her katana. He coughed and hurried past, ducking his head. Behind him, Raghann grinned in open amusement.

“Kon,” Aresk said in a low voice, veering over to walk beside Arquin as they approached the stairs to the shrine.

The human looked at him sidelong. “Pardon?”

“It’s kon-nichiwa.”

“…that’s what I said.”

“You said ‘can.’ Also ‘nitch,’ when the vowel you wanted there was more of an ee. And you heavily emphasized one of the syllables, which Sifanese doesn’t. The language has fewer sounds than Kharsa. Or Tanglish, I understand. It also has lots of homonyms; half their humor is puns. So it’s very important to pronounce correctly, otherwise you can find yourself making an off-color joke you didn’t intend.”

“Oh, gods,” Arquin muttered. “What did I say to her?”

Aresk grunted. “You said ‘hello’ in the manner of a mush-mouthed idiot foreigner. Good try, but maybe you’d better keep letting your magic sword translate.”

Arquin actually grinned in open amusement; he looked like he might have laughed, had their mission and surroundings been less solemn. At moments like this, Aresk couldn’t help feeling that Gabriel Arquin would be an okay guy if he didn’t embody everything wrong with the world.

At the top of the stone stairs they passed beneath one of the towering, squared arches the Sifanese liked to use in ceremonial places. Apparently they had some spiritual significance, which Aresk had never learned. After last night’s conversation, he was starting to wonder how badly his father’s opinions had tainted his understanding of the world. The shrine itself was not large, a low building with an open front and a traditional sloped roof, surrounded by quiet gardens within the shade of the massive trees which surmounted the cemetery.

Two Vidian priests stood before the shrine itself, and bowed deeply to them. Aresk had always deliberately avoided these; swathed in black robes with white ceramic masks, they were inscrutable, silent, and altogether…

“Creepy,” Arquin muttered.

Aresk looked at him in surprise. “Aren’t these priests of your religion?”

“The cults in Sifan are different than what I’m used to. Believe me, those samurai down there don’t much resemble Silver Legionnaires. These guys…more of the same.”

“Hm.”

“And so you have come!”

Once again, Kyomi appeared standing on top of something, this time the front edge of the shrine’s roof. That seemed rather disrespectful to Aresk, but in a country where her kind were known as goddesses he supposed she got to decide exactly how much honor was to be shown to whom and what.

The instant she spoke, both Vidian priests spun toward her and folded themselves to the ground, pressing their masks against the grass with their hands forming triangles in front of their foreheads. The kitsune had never demanded such obesiance from the Kharsa, but in the presence of it Aresk made his own bow deeper than he usually did—and noticed that the others did likewise, including Raghann. Arquin also bowed, shifting his feet and grasping the scabbard of his enchanted sword, generally looking uncomfortable. Apparently he wasn’t accustomed to the gesture.

Kyomi stepped off the roof into thin air, and drifted down to the stone path as lightly as an autumn leaf. She offered no acknowledgment to the two prostrate priests, simply nodding to the group. “Shaman. Hunter. Gabriel. And of course, Vestrel and Evaine!”

Her green eyes shifted to look past them at that, and Aresk risked a glance over his shoulder—then had to steel himself against jolting in surprise. Two ghost-like figures stood on the path behind them, just inside the arch, little more than black blurs like shadows lifted off the ground. So indistinct were they that it took him a moment of study to realize their odd shapes were due to each having black wings. Most unsettlingly, each carried a scythe, which was incongruously vivid enough in appearance to look tangible.

“In this land,” Kyomi stated, wearing a vague little smile, “among my people, this would ordinarily be an occasion of great ceremony. But we are here on behalf of the orcs, a people noted for straightforward practicality. And so, let us be about this as swiftly as we may. Sisters, the gate is open. Please go ahead, and scout the path before us.”

Gate? Aresk could see nothing that resembled a gate. Before he could wonder in earnest, the two indistinct figures of the valkyries swept past the group—and, to their immense discomfiture, partly through them, black wings slicing through flesh without touching. It was harmless but quite disturbing.

“Sorry about that,” Arquin said quietly. “They haven’t touched anybody in thousands of years; most people can never even see them. They get pretty casual about personal space.”

None of the orcs replied, being fully occupied by watching the shadowy valkyries vanish. The moment they reached the open front of the shrine, before touching the altar which stood just past the shade of its roof, they simply winked out of existence.

“So…that is the gate?” Gairan inquired, quietly but aloud. “Just…there? Out in the open?”

“Anyone fooling around a sacred site deserves whatever they stumble into,” Kyomi said indifferently. “We will not be disturbed, thanks to the Sisters. If our great experiment comes to nothing, I will obviously not leave the gate open, and if it succeeds, there will be a permanent presence of guards here. Worry not, young shaman.”

“Of course, Ancient One,” Gairan murmured, bowing again. “I did not mean to question.”

“You’ve given no offense,” Kyomi replied with a mysterious little smile. “You also, Gabriel, calm yourself. I’m pleased to see that you care for them so, but Athan’Khar is no more dangerous to them than anywhere else, so long as they do not approach Kharsor itself—which they won’t. Nothing in the region around the gate can reach across the dimensional divide to touch them.”

“I see,” he said thoughtfully. “Where is the other end of the gate, exactly?”

All three orcs shifted to stare at him. One did not question a kitsune, especially in that tone.

Kyomi, though, smiled again, with a bit more emotion. “I see why Kaisa likes you so much.”

His jaw dropped. “Wait, she what?”

“Unless you have performed a very detailed study of geography since we last spoke, the exact location will be meaningless to you. I chose a site which was sacred to the Kharsa and thus relatively unscathed by the mad spirits which still lived there, but held no inherent magic to be twisted by Magnan’s atrocity. Vestrel and Evaine will investigate the conditions on the other side, and then…we shall see what we shall see.”

“Ancient One,” Raghann said with a diffidence Aresk wouldn’t have thought her capable of, “we are deeply grateful to you for undertaking this labor on behalf of our people. As always, we are your servants.”

Kyomi’s eyes flicked to Aresk, and as he dropped his gaze he had to wonder whether such a creature could tell how he felt about having his and his entire race’s service so blithely promised that way.

“Have you figured it out, yet, Raghann?” the kitsune asked pleasantly.

“Figured…what out, Kyomi-sama?”

“Whether all this is a step in a larger plan,” Kyomi explained, amusement heavily tingeing her voice, “or simply a joke?”

The sound of soft wind through the branches above almost covered the intake of breath from all three orcs. Though not from her ears, of course.

“Okay, you cut that out,” Arquin ordered, and Gairan forgot herself so far as to whip around to stare at him in horror. One of the kneeling priests physically twitched. Arquin was scowling at Kyomi, and pointed an accusing finger. “You’re a creature older than civilization with the power to level mountains. Tormenting old ladies is beneath you.”

Aresk was very certain, for a moment, that they were all about to die.

“A fair criticism,” Kyomi said, still smiling, and actually bowed to the human.

Gairan looked as if the entire earth had been yanked out from under her. Aresk could relate.

Two dark blurs zoomed out of the invisible gate in swift succession, and he was more pleased than he could possibly have imagined to see eerie avatars of death.

“Ah,” Kyomi said, turning to face them with her sharp ears perking up. As far as Aresk could tell, she and the valkyries just stood there, staring at each other. He edged toward Arquin, leaning over to mutter out the side of his mouth.

“Are they going to speak?”

“They are speaking,” he replied just as quietly. “I’m afraid that’s as visible as they get, and that’s because it’s Vidian holy ground with a giant dimensional rift in it at the moment. But they’re describing the area around the other side of the gate, which they say is…” He paused, tilting his head. “…quiet? Relatively speaking.”

“Quiet enough, for our purposes,” Kyomi agreed, looking over her shoulder at them with a knowing little smile which she pulled off even better than Raghann, unsurprisingly. “Quiet enough that an old shaman and a young shaman can send forth an entreaty. Do not approach the gate; conduct your rituals to call out to them from this side. If they respond favorably, we have a beginning. If not… Best to be upon our ground, not theirs.”

“Athan’Khar is our ground,” Aresk rumbled, and then immediately wanted to punch himself. This habit of speaking before thinking reared up at the most inopportune times.

“I suspect, young hunter,” Kyomi said with a grin that showed off her pointed little canines, “that this entire enterprise will hinge upon whether you can convince them of that.”

“How do you convince the maddened, rage-altered spirits of a million murdered souls of anything,” Gabriel muttered, frowning deeply.

“That, young Deathspeaker,” said Raghann, “is a shaman’s duty.”

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Bonus #30: Deathspeaker, part 2

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Of course, it wasn’t that simple…and yet it absolutely was.

Aresk kept his mouth firmly shut during the discussion and argument which followed. There was a great deal of talking, most centered on the unsuitability of two barely adult orcs for such an important mission, and the risk of sending Mother Raghann, the High Wind’s eldest. It wasn’t that Aresk had no thoughts to contribute, of course. He wouldn’t have bothered arguing that he could handle the responsibility, anyway, as he knew well the futility of that claim in any circumstances. Rather, he itched to point out that none of them dared to question these decisions until Kyomi vanished again, in the abrupt and unpredictable manner of her kind. Obiouvly, he kept that to himself. The entire front row would have lined up to pummel him.

So he let the argument surge around, every word of it as predictable as it was futile, and took note of who was talking and who was not. His father, of course, was a prominent voice of objection to nearly every part of this. In fact, almost everyone on the lowest row of the amphitheater except himself and Gairan argued vehemently for one thing or another. Mother Raghann was silent, however, just watching and listening. The human, Arquin, also kept his mouth shut.

Aresk and Gairan spent much of the discussion exchanging significant looks. She, he could tell, was very much of his own mind about the whole business. Even given the gravity of the issue at hand, it was a subtle thrill to feel that connection with her.

In the end, Raghann finally cut across the debate by declaring that if she was too old to serve her clan, she was too old to be eldest anyway and it was high time for her to run off and get killed so Takhran could take over.

And then Arquin took advantage of the short quiet which followed to put an end to the whole conversation.

“Of course, you should do what you think is right. Personally, I’m gonna do what the kitsune told me to. I’ve had the experience of one of their kind being disappointed with me. It was…enough.”

It was a strange feeling, Aresk found, to be in firm agreement with this outsider, and to resent it so.


“And why are we hiking inland in the opposite direction from the entire continent?” Aresk demanded the next day, once their little group was out of sight of Camp Khashrek. In truth, he’d wanted to ask that question the moment they set out, but was still mulling his father’s last private words to him, instructing that he carefully watch both Arquin and Raghann, with whom Arkhosh frequently disagreed about the clan’s future. “Don’t we at least need to reach the sea? How else is the Ancient One going to get us there?”

“Athan’Khar is not approachable by sea or land,” Raghann replied, striding along without leaning on the staff she carried. There was indeed a faint stoop in the old woman’s shoulders, but her very pace was what made it noticeable. Orcs did not grow frail with age, as a rule. “The spirits are practically mindless with rage, the monsters indiscriminate in their aggression. Elves and gnomes may try their luck with some occasional success, but a human crossing the border is instantly attacked by everything within miles; an orc is…taken. We don’t know what happened to the first shaman who tried to return home, but their spirit guides grieved the loss so loudly that every other shaman was warned against the attempt.”

“So how do you get to a place if you can’t enter it?” Gairan asked.

“Good question,” Aresk grunted. “And none of this explains why we’re walking the wrong way.”

“You learn more if you let your elders finish talking, young hunter,” Raghann said, shooting him a flat look. “To answer, Gairan, the way to get into a place without crossing its borders is to simply pop up in the middle.”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Aresk protested.

Raghann whacked him on the head with her staff. He sighed, but made no further comment. It was a fair blow; she had, after all, just cautioned him to keep quiet and listen till she was done explaining. Gairan gave him a commiserating little smile. Arquin, oddly, seemed so startled by the hit that his pace faltered, and then he had to jog a few steps to catch up.

“That,” Raghann continued, “is why none of this would be possible without the help of the Ancient Ones. Kyomi-sama has offered to take us directly to a place in the interior of Athan’Khar—to a sacred spot where the corruption is mild enough that she can open a way.”

“Kitsune use fae magic,” Arquin added, “which ordinarily doesn’t provide any means of instantaneous travel. But I guess if you’re a creature on her level, most of the rules just don’t apply to you. Which is kind of the point. Neither arcane teleportation nor shadow-jumping work into Athan’Khar. I’m taking it on faith that she can actually do this.”

Aresk curled his lip. “What is shadow-jumping?”

“Warlock craft,” Gairan said quietly. “Best left alone.”

“Ah.” He nodded at her in agreement. There were no warlocks in Sifan, thanks to the kitsune and various yokai, but stories of them and their vile magics survived among the clans.

“And that brings us, at long, long last, to your question, impatient boy,” Raghann said, and Aresk had to struggle not to bristle. Anyone else he would have punched right on the nose for talking down to him that way, but the eldest mother of the clan had certain privileges—which she wasn’t shy about exercising. “We are going to another piece of sacred ground, this one in Sifan. There is an old shrine of Vidius a day or two in this direction. Kyomi-sama said she can open the gate from there. The protections upon the grounds will help to shield Sifan from the madness on the other side.”

“I’ve been meaning to ask about that,” said Arquin. “Kyomi mentioned the shrine was abandoned. In fact, she said ‘one of the abandoned shrines,’ implying there were more.” He hesitated, glancing around at the sunny countryside, and Aresk repressed and urge to shove him on general principles. It was one thing to be a weak, spindly human, but did the man have to make such a nervous spectacle of it? “This whole country… Death has a presence here, like nothing else I’ve ever felt. I’m not sure what to make of it.”

“It’s not the whole country, just the island,” Gairan explained, veering in front of Aresk to walk next to Arquin. Aresk felt something unpleasant begin to rise in his throat and ruthlessly shoved it back down, knowing very well when he was being childish and irrational. He walked along in silence while Gairan talked to the human; aside from having little to contribute to the topic, he didn’t quite trust himself to speak. “Tsurikura is…well, a land of death, like you said. There was a plague here, some ten years before the Enchanter’s bane; that’s why Sifan had a conveniently unpopulated island the Ancient Ones offered to let us use.”

“Yes, very convenient,” Raghann said dryly.

“That was a poor choice of words,” Gairan agreed, nodding contritely. “Nobody knows what disease it was now, just that it killed fast, and was incredibly contagious. The Queen at the time refused to send more healers after the first dispatched died like everyone else, and ordered any boats trying to leave Tsurikura to be destroyed with fire arrows before they could reach the other islands. It’s said that every human here was dead within two months.”

“Gods,” Arquin muttered.

“And so we are not merely squatters,” Gairan continued, raising her chin with pride. “The clans are caretakers. Tsurikura is clean and verdant now, but that took years of our labor. The first orcs who came here gathered up and buried the dead with honor, cleaned and sanctified the ghost villages, repaired the shrines… It wasn’t always quite so peaceful, either. The Sifanese had avoided the island since the plague, and malignant yokai had moved in, not to mentioned anguished spirits of humans which were very restless. Our ancestors had a lot of work to do. Less now; we maintain the graveyards and shrines according to Sifanese custom, and by now priests come from Kiyosan to help. Even still, there are occasionally wandering spirits that have to be calmed. It’s a good land now, though, thanks to our work.”

“Tsurikura is not our true home,” Aresk added, “that will always be Athan’Khar, no matter what your people may do. But we have earned our place here.”

“It sounds like you have a lot to be proud of,” Arquin said with a smile.

Aresk scowled at him suspiciously, which seemed to surprise him.

Grinning, Mother Raghann prodded the human’s shoulder with her staff. “Don’t try to deal with orcs the way you would with Sifanese, young man. Especially young bucks like Aresk, here. Our ways are straightforward; anyone who thinks you’re flattering them will take it as an insult.”

“Oh…kay,” Arquin said warily. “It wasn’t meant as flattery, just a statement.”

“We are proud of what we have done here,” Gairan said simply. “Orcish pride doesn’t require validation. Aresk is right; it’s a touchy issue, that goes straight to the heart of what we’re doing right now. Tsurikura has been a home to us, but it is not our true home, our ancestral home. We have roots and ties here, now. The prospect of returning to Athan’Khar is a grand one, but it also raises some hard questions, and the prospect of loss.”

“I see,” Arquin murmured. “Makes sense…”

“There’s a lot that doesn’t make sense,” Aresk said, not even trying to keep the scowl off his face. He didn’t go so far as to bodily insert himself between Arquin and Gairan, but only because she would have whacked him for it—and worse, made fun of him. “I won’t question that the Ancient One can do what she said. Or that you can, I suppose. It’s not like I know any human death magic. But you talked as if the Empire would welcome us back with open arms. No pretty words will make me believe that.”

“Huh,” Arquin grunted. “You know… I think that’s the first time in my life someone has accused me of using pretty words.”

“Oh, don’t sell yourself short, boy,” Raghann replied with a grin. “You bargain well. I, for what it is worth, believe what you said about the Empire and its politics. But that’s not the whole story, is it?”

“The whole story is more than I could possibly know,” said Arquin. “The Empire is a big place, and sometimes it seems like everyone in it has an agenda—”

“Enough of your waffling!” Aresk growled, stepping around Gairan and punching Arquin on the shoulder, sending the human staggering.

“Stop it!” Gairan snapped—at him. She decked Aresk on the jaw, hard enough to make it clear she was serious; he actually had to take a step back to keep his balance. “You know better than that, Aresk! Don’t treat humans like orcs. Do you punch every Sifanese who smiles and lies to your face?”

“This one is not Sifanese!” Aresk snarled, angry less at her than at the fact that he was now arguing with her. “He’s Tiraan!”

“He’s still human!” she retorted. “Their way with words is complex, and they’re all too fragile for orcish handling.”

“Never been called fragile before, either,” Arquin remarked. He was now standing a few feet away, thanks to Aresk’s hit, but didn’t appear hurt despite Gairan’s concern. The whole group had stopped, and now Raghann hung back, watching the young people with an inscrutable expression. “Look, I’m not suggesting we take every orc on Tsurikura and drop them right in Athan’Khar. Even if we could somehow cleanse the whole country, that would be a bad idea.”

“Then what is the point of all this?” Aresk demanded.

“The point is it’ll take time.” Arquin resumed walking, and they fell in alongside him. “Remember, what we are doing here is an experiment. We don’t yet know if we can cleanse even part of the country. If it doesn’t work, well, that’s that. But if it does, it’s only going to be the first step in a very large, very long plan. It’s a big country, bigger than any of the Imperial provinces; recovering it will have to be done one step at a time. This is going to be the work of generations, optimistically.”

“Which, if you are right, the Empire will help with,” Gairan said, and Aresk was pleased to find skepticism on her face.

He was surprised to find it on Arquin’s, too. “I think that’ll have to be managed carefully,” said the human, frowning at the distance ahead of them. “Tiraas can probably be persuaded to help, and it certainly owes the clans that help…but I think it’ll be important to limit how much they contribute. What nobody needs is for the Empire to take over the effort, and position itself to determine what happens in a rebuilt Athan’Khar. That’s gonna be the tricky part—getting the resources and support the effort needs from Tiraas, while controlling the amount of influence it has.”

“Oh?” Raghann said in that sardonic tone of hers. “You mean, you don’t want your Empire to gain more power over its neighbors?”

“Gaining power isn’t the solution to most problems,” Arquin replied. “I mean, contradict me if I’m wrong, I know I have a lot less experience with life than you. But it seems to me that power causes more problems than it solves, and the pursuit of it makes people crazy. No, I care about the Empire, but for that reason I’m not interested in handing Athan’Khar to the Silver Throne. All the Empire’s neighbors have amicable but tense relationships with Tiraas, and I think that’s just about perfect. It forces us to stay focused and alert and prevents the kind of insane overreach that caused the Enchanter Wars.”

“Hm,” Gairan grunted, wearing a pensive frown very much like Arquin’s.

“What is it you want, then?” Aresk asked. “You want the Empire to help us, but not too much?”

“Exactly!” Arquin gave him a grin, which faltered under Aresk’s glare. “Look, you have to understand that no one in the Empire has seen an orc in a hundred years. You’re nearly mythical to us. If we just suddenly jammed both societies right next to each other, it would probably go very badly. The fact that restoring Athan’Khar is going to be such a long and detailed process creates an opportunity to do it well. It’ll let orcs and humans get to know each other again—gradually, in small doses at first. It’s a chance to build some trust and establish a lasting peace.”

Aresk physically swelled with his instinctive reply to that, but Gairan caught his eye and her expression warned of more trouble than he wanted. Instead, he let out a huff of air and kept his mouth shut.

“So…why you, then?” Gairan asked the human after a moment. “I can’t see it as coincidence that the first time anyone comes from Tiraas who cares about us and our land is the first time Vidius has called a Chosen. It makes sense, that this would be a matter of death, but at the same time that seems…ominous.”

“It does, doesn’t it?” Arquin agreed, as if the thought had only just occurred to him, too. “Frankly, I don’t think Vidius has much to do with it, explicitly. I mean, that is, there’s a lot he can do to help with this, but… Well, it was my idea, and I wasn’t approaching it as a matter of death. Truthfully, I just got into a conversation a while back with the Hand of Avei about orcs and their history with the Sisterhood, and got to thinking about what it would take to repair Athan’Khar, and why nobody had tried yet. One thing just led to another…”

Aresk wanted to punch him. He wanted to punch everyone. On they walked, through the sunshine and the music of cicadas, Gairan and this human chattering along in animated conversation while he stewed in silence. He tried, as best he could, just to tune them out. Otherwise he really was going to end up punching Arquin right in his too-clever mouth, and getting himself in even worse trouble with Gairan than he already was.

Mother Raghann let herself fall to the rear of the group, and watched them in amused quiet as they walked.


It was a long day.

Traveling through the wilds of Tsurikura was Aresk’s whole life, and he loved it. But his hunts were either done in solitude or with the company of fellow hunters he was familiar and comfortable with; he enjoyed it both ways. This group was something different. Mother Raghann constantly breathing down his neck would alone have put him on edge, but that wasn’t even the worst of it. A journey with some human from Tiraas should have been painfully awkward at best; a journey with Gairan, alone, would have been exactly the opportunity he had wished for. Somehow, the combination of both was worse than Aresk could have imagined, because the two of them hit it off brilliantly.

For the most part, he kept quiet. Much of the time he simply had nothing to contribute, as he wasn’t inclined to talk with Arquin and Gairan, while happy enough to speak with Aresk, kept returning her attention to the human. After the first few recitations of his adventures, which were the most grandiose nonsense Aresk had ever heard or imagined (Centaurs? Skeleton hordes? Machine cults? The boy was either a lunatic or a damn liar) he began actively tuning them out whenever Gairan wasn’t the one speaking.

After their stop for food at midday, Aresk took to roaming wide of the group. Scouting, he told them, checking ahead and to both sides for potential threats. Of course, the greatest dangers in Tsurikura these days were bears and wild boars, and if they stumbled across a hostile yokai or something the group with two shaman and the Chosen of Vidius would obviously be safer than one hunter on his own. It offended Aresk a little that Gairan didn’t ask him to stick closer. And Raghann really didn’t need to keep giving him that knowing look whenever he drifted away.

To make it all more annoying, their pace was constrained by the human in their midst. Arquin could take a hit, as Aresk had discovered, but he lacked an orcish constitution and was winded after just a few hours of walking through forest at full speed. Rather than stopping repeatedly to rest throughout the day, they constrained their pace to what he considered a leisurely stroll. At least the human didn’t complain or beg, and even pushed himself hard enough that Raghann had to insist they stop and make camp a full hour before dark. Arquin didn’t argue very hard, and actually fell asleep as soon as they were no longer moving.

Aresk was glad to have his mouth finally shut, though not so much so that he didn’t resent the boy’s lack of help in setting up. Gairan made it worse; she seemed to think it was cute.

By the time they had built a fire, laid out some rations, and awakened their companion from his nap, Aresk was inwardly seething. Arquin wasn’t even a bad sort, objectively speaking; it wasn’t as if Aresk didn’t know humans were on the delicate side. He’d dealt with them before and didn’t mind. Under other circumstances—and if the guy hadn’t been Tiraan—he might have enjoyed the chance to get to know someone from a place so distant. But Gairan just would not stop talking to him!

“I wish I understood why us,” she said, staring quizzically at the campfire. The young shaman gave Aresk a smile, which he gladly returned. “I’m honored and not afraid of the danger, but…”

“Don’t lie to yourself, girl,” Raghann said from the other side of the fire. “If you weren’t afraid of this danger, it would make you an idiot. You’re facing it anyway, that’s what matters.”

“Do you ever get tired of lecturing people, Mother Raghann?” Aresk inquired.

“Well, it’s been seventy years and I haven’t yet, but things change all the time,” she replied, flashing her teeth at him.

Gairan reached over to jostle his knee affectionately. “Danger or no, I don’t get it. Gabriel is obviously necessary and Mother Raghann makes sense. But we’re just a couple of random young people.”

“Some things are just…as they are,” Aresk said.

“That’s not an answer, it’s avoiding the question,” she retorted.

“Yes, and I sleep very well at night,” he said, grinning. “If a question is too big to have an answer, I’m much happier not wasting time on it.”

She grinned back, and it was a wonderful shared moment. And then, of course, she had to ruin it.

“What do you think, Gabe?”

“I think if a kitsune tells me to do something, I do it,” he said after swallowing a bite of hardtack. “Learned that lesson the hard way. Either Kyomi has seen and planned far ahead and carefully chosen every stop to achieve some future goal we can’t even guess at yet… Orrrr she just thought it was funny.”

“If you only knew,” Raghann said dourly, “how often I have wondered which of those motivations inspired the Ancient Ones to bring us to this land in the first place.”

“You mentioned that yesterday at the camp,” Gairan said, shifting in place to face away from Aresk and toward Arquin. “You’ve encountered Ancient Ones before? They rarely leave Sifan.”

“Rarely, but not never,” he said, for some reason grimacing and rubbing a hand over his throat. “One of them came to the school I attend to teach magic class for a semester, though.”

“You’ve studied under a kitsune?!” Gairan leaned toward him, her expression eager and awed. Aresk clenched his fists at his sides. “Which one?”

“Ekoi Kaisa.”

“I’ve heard of Kaisa-sama! What was it like?”

“…scary,” Arquin said frankly, a wry little smile crossing his face. “Informative, though! She actually is a good teacher. But yes, generally unsettling in a way that in hindsight I’m pretty sure was deliberate.”

“So even the great Chosen of Vidius is afraid of something,” Aresk muttered.

Gairan shot him a look which was far too akin to Raghann’s knowing expressions for his liking.

“Lots of firsts today,” Arquin said lightly. “I don’t think anyone’s ever called me ‘great,’ either. Though, to be honest, if anybody was ever going to it would only be sarcastically.”

“You are a curious fellow,” Raghann mused. “One moment, almost orcish—straightforward even when you should be more discreet. The next, almost Sifanese—cagey and self-deprecating.”

“Well, maybe people are hard to understand purely in terms of where they come form,” Arquin said with a smile. “We’re all individuals. Stereotypes don’t take you far in terms of getting to know someone. It’s like I said earlier, physically recovering Athan’Khar from its condition is only half the battle. The rest of it will be getting Kharsa and Tiraan culture carefully into contact, so they can get used to not thinking of each other as enemies. That’s the only way there’s going to be permanent peace.”

This time, it was more than Aresk could take.

“And what if we don’t want permanent peace?” he snapped.

Arquin blinked at him as if confused. “Then…what’s the point of any of this?”

“Aresk has grown up with stories of how things were in the homeland,” Raghann said dryly. “Stories four generations removed, and therefore rather romantic. My own mother survived the Bane, and told me of life before it. Our people raided back and forth into N’Jendo and Viridill constantly, on a small scale, and every other generation or so gathered the clans into a horde to wage real war. The Jendi hated us. The Viridi… Orcish codes of honor are very much like Avenist battle doctrine in many ways. There was no attacking of noncombatants, mistreatment of civilians, destruction of personal property or necessary infrastructure. Warriors who violated our codes were summarily handed over to the enemy to face their justice. More importantly, our ancestors waged war because it sharpened and strengthened them. I think it’s no accident the Sisterhood immediately turned on the Empire after the Bane was used. Avenist and Kharsa fought, but they understood and respected each other. Largely because they fought.”

“Well…” Arquin picked up a stick and poked at the fire. “That was then. You don’t fight the Sifanese, do you?”

“It would be a crippling dishonor to repay them so for giving us a place,” Gairan said.

“And, once again,” Aresk added in a growl, “your people are not the Sifanese!”

“You don’t actually know who my people are,” Arquin pointed out in a mild tone, clearly not realizing how close it brought him to being clubbed. “There are a lot of ethnicities in the Empire. The Westerners alone are between three and seven nations, depending on how you count.”

“If you want our people to recover their own lands,” said Aresk, “it must be in our way. Observing our traditions!”

“And to people like Arkhosh,” Raghann said quietly, “that will mean taking up the sword. Never mind that we are a hundred years out of practice.”

“Exactly!” Aresk exclaimed. “Already we grow soft!”

“Do we?” She shrugged. “I don’t feel soft. It’s like you were saying earlier, Gabriel Arquin. Your Empire has surrounded itself with nations which could, with just a few insults, become enemies. It lives under the constant tension of having to keep those relationships amicable. It seems to me that is a fine way for a people to hone themselves. I have to do the same with half the idiots in my clan, and I give that most of the credit for keeping my mind sharp all these years. A hundred years ago, the Kharsa and the Tiraan were both broken peoples. Now we are a pacified remnant and they rule the mightiest nation in the world. Coincidence?”

“There is no comparison!” Aresk roared, shooting to his feet.

“Are you going to punch the Mother, Aresk?” Gairan asked dryly.

“Now, I think you’re both right,” Arquin said in a soothing tone, and only Gairan’s hand pushing on his leg stopped Aresk from lunging at him. “That really isn’t a fair comparison; Athan’Khar was a smaller nation and had just lost most of its population and all of its territory. The Kharsa could hardly be expected to bounce back like the Imperials. On the other hand…the world really is different, now. Trying to wage constant war would lead to complete and quick disaster, Aresk. Not least because the Empire has more people in its army than the clans have people at all, and weapons a hundred years more advanced than your ancestors faced.”

“So you think you’re stronger than we are?” Aresk snarled.

“Now, now, I don’t mean in a personal—”

“Boy, stop,” Raghann said with open amusement. “It’s a good effort, but completely misplaced. We don’t talk our way past disagreements this fundamental, Gabriel, we face them. Trying to soothe this away is just piling on additional insults.”

Arquin looked at her in silence for a moment, then up at Aresk. “So. Would I be wrong in guessing you have something of a personal problem with me, Aresk?”

“No,” Aresk grunted, forcibly relaxing his clenched fists. “No, you’re right, this is foolish. You’re just a human and I shouldn’t expect you to understand anything.”

Arquin tossed his stick into the fire and stood up.

“Don’t,” Gairan urged, and it wasn’t clear who she was talking to.

“Well, I’ll tell you what,” Arquin drawled, staring at Aresk. “If it’ll maybe put this behind us and help you feel better, big guy, why don’t you take your shot.”

Aresk had been absolutely sincere in his declaration of intent to back down from this, and so it was a surprise to both of them when Arquin had no sooner shut his mouth than he got a fist across it.

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Bonus #29: Deathspeaker, part 1

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This chapter topic was selected by Kickstarter backer Donát Nagy!

It was not a large meet, but any meet was enough to push Aresk into a rush, even when returning to the camp with an impressive kill—a moment he ordinarily savored as much as possible. Only three clans had gathered, and he had little interest in the Shadowed Wood clan. But the Cold Spray were there…

“And that means Gairan will be there,” Rortosk said in a deliberately bland tone, staring at the banners.

Aresk dropped his deer with less reverence than it deserved, just barely managing not to visibly clench his jaw in embarrassment. “What of it? I mean…I suppose.”

The old hunter grinned broadly, but clapped him on the shoulder, giving him a friendly shake for good measure. “Tell you what. Why don’t you let us finish up here? There’s not much left to do, and we’ve all seen meets before.”

“I do my fair share,” Aresk protested, straightening to his full height and squaring his shoulders.

“At this point it’s nothing but chewing the breeze with Rian and that poor fool she’s snared as an apprentice, while everybody admires our kills. I think we can manage it without you, eh?”

“Aye, go check on that father of yours,” Isnek added while the rest of the hunting party grinned agreement. “See to it he doesn’t start any feuds this time.”

Aresk didn’t bother to protest that hadn’t been an actual feud, nor entirely his father’s fault. Unable to fully repress the bounce in his step, he was already backing up toward the camp. “I don’t care what anyone says, Rortosk, sometimes you do have a soul after all.”

He wasn’t backed up so far that Rortosk’s fist failed to collide with his jaw. Aresk staggered backward, tasting blood, which he spat on the ground a moment later. Grinning at Rortosk, he pounded one fist into his opposite palm in acknowledgment of the blow, then finally turned and strode off, followed by the catcalls of the rest of the party. It wasn’t so bad, being the young pup of the group, at least once he got over his own self-consciousness. They never insulted him by taking on his share of the actual work, but as the elder hunter had pointed out, there was little enough to do at this point but unpack, and they did encourage him to live a bit when appropriate. Still, Aresk was looking forward to another youth joining the hunts just so he wasn’t the youngest anymore.

Orcs milled around the camp, both familiar faces and those of visiting sister clans. Many, residents and guests alike, were in regalia in honor of the meet; Aresk nodded politely to everyone he passed, but to those formally dressed he gave a full bow, fist over heart. The respect was earned, in his mind, both for the preservation of their traditions and for sheer perseverance; orcish regalia was not comfortable in a Tsurikura summer. Orcs were a large, solid people, bred for the colder climate of Athan’Khar; the Sifanese archipelago could be scathing at this time of year.

Camp Khashrek was the largest holding of the High Wind clan, and the very name roused bitterness in Aresk, along with the all-but-audible voice of his father growling in the back of his head. Camp, indeed. They still called it that, and it was important, even if reality gave the lie to the name. Tsurikura was not their home, but a place they were allowed to stay by the Sifanese. The clans’ holdings in this land were temporary, stopovers for the time being until they could reclaim their true lands. But a century after the apocalypse, they were not only no closer to returning to Athan’Khar or even avenging themselves against the Tiraan, and the roots they had put down here in Sifan had grown unmistakable and increasingly unlikely to be pulled up in the future.

Now, Khashrek was a town in all but name. More and more of the High Wind had drifted toward it from the outlying camps, to the point that Aresk and his father had both muttered about moving away themselves, to be closer to the wild. Even so, it wasn’t a large town, housing no more than four hundred orcs most of the time—just enough that it wasn’t quite possible to know everyone and their business. Aresk could remember a time, when he was a very small child, when the camp’s name had been at least somewhat borne out in its architecture, when even the homes with solid walls of wood were rough-hewn, insulated only with patches of clay, many having hide roofs. Now they were all permanent structures, with stone foundations and adobe walls, and it had been Aresk’s own traditionalist father who had pushed for this, albeit reluctantly. At least these were proper orcish homes of stone and plaster, accented with timber and bone, still with stretched hides shading their porches and windows but roofed in shingles or thatch. There were also some houses in the Sifanese style, whose construction had been what pushed even that traditionalist faction to act, determined to at least preserve true orcish architecture.

It wasn’t as if the Sifanese were doing it on purpose. That was almost worse; if they were trying to corrupt what was left of Kharsa culture, Aresk could at least have resented it. Orcs were allowed to visit Kiyosan for trade, and he had accompanied his father there a couple of times—enough to learn he had no taste for it, for the way the humans looked at them. The Sifanese were a famously insular people, who didn’t even like having other humans in their country, let alone orcs. They were accustomed to living by the wild dictates of the kitsune, and if the fox-goddesses said that orcs were allowed to settle on Tsurikura, well, shou ga nai. Aresk was reasonably fluent in their language and as much as he deliberately favored Kharsa even in his own head, he got a lot of use out of that phrase.

Even now, passing through Camp Khashrek, the signs were evident. Small yokai shrines in the gardens of some homes, colorful pennants acquired from human traders decorating porches. In the art painted along houses, traditional knotwork and animal spirit depictions were sometimes accompanied by elaborate geometric designs in the Sifanese style. No one was quite outlandish enough to walk around dressed in a kimono, but even among the weapons carried by fellow orcs, there were occasional naginata and katana accompanying their traditional spears and khopesh. Bit by inexorable bit, they were being absorbed by a people who didn’t even want them there.

Today, at least, the omnipresent reminders didn’t manage to sour Aresk’s mood. Without hesitation, he followed the crowd to where it was thickest: the ceremonial grounds along the west edge of Camp Khashrek, where the public amphitheater lay in the shelter of a rocky protrusion which shielded the town from the prevailing winds. The way there was crowded, not just with orcs talking or moving, but with commerce, as people from the two visiting clans had brought goods and High Wind residents had brought out their own, to make an impromptu market along the wide center street. His own hunting party would be joining them soon with their catch. It was clear, though, that the focus of the crowd and most of those present was at the ceremonial grounds. That meant something important was happening there.

That meant Gairan was likely to be there. Aresk straightened his back further, rolling his shoulders, and tried not to chafe at the delay as he had to slow with the crowd to get in. To his left, someone accidentally jostled someone else and was punched in the side of the head; he barely stepped away in time to avoid the first man staggering into him and drawing him into the scuffle. For a moment he resignedly figured there was about to be a brawl and he really would get caught up, but the clumsy orc just nodded to the one he’d bumped, pounding his fist in recognition, and received a nod in return.

The amphitheater was the only structure in Camp Khashrek surrounded by a wall, the town itself being forbidden exterior defenses by Sifanese law. Aresk had been surprised, as a boy, to learn that law was not applied selectively to orcs; Queen Takamatsu forbade fortifications except to her own lords. Each of its three entrances was flanked by two totems, proper orcish ones rather than the yokai shrines that had started going up everywhere else. Passing between the carved faces of animal spirits quieted the crowd, and there was a distinct difference between the festival atmosphere outside in the town and the more solemn one within the grounds.

Aresk stepped to the side as soon as space opened, in the broad half-ring which separated the descending tiers of the amphitheater from the wall, craning his neck to peer around. There was a meeting already in progress, a few figures standing on the stage at the lowest level, but he ignored them at first searching for—his father, as he would claim if anybody asked. But also Gairan. She had to be here somewhere, the crowd was a roughly even blend of all three tribes and she always had to be in the thick of everything…

He had to resign himself to the hopelessness of that, though, as there were far too many people standing and making their way through the various tiers to give him a clear view; all those seated with their backs to the entrances were anonymous from his angle, a lot actually invisible behind others. Aresk let out a short huff of annoyance, and then the scene below finally caught his attention.

There was a human there. Not unheard of; the Sifanese avoided the orcs, but only mostly, and they had some regular visitors who were quite friendly. The other side of their culture being so formal and orderly was that individuals who didn’t fit well in it had few opportunities to get away, and a number of them found the more plain-spoken orcs good company. This one was Punaji, though, and it was odd for one of them to come this far inland. Aresk quite liked the Punaji, for all that their boisterousness could get annoying; they made the Sifanese look like a nation of temple guardians. They were sea people, though, frequent visitors to the ports on Tsurikura’s northwestern coast where the Cold Spray made their homes, and he’d never heard of one being encountered elsewhere. This one had the distinctive black hair—also distinctively uncombed—and one of those long heavy coats they wore, which had to be brutally uncomfortable in the summer heat. Even one of their shortish, curved swords hung at his waist. More than that Aresk couldn’t tell, as the man stood with his back to him, facing Mother Raghann.

Must be important indeed, for a human to be brought into the ceremonial grounds, and welcomed to stand at the speaker’s place in the amphitheater. Aresk couldn’t help some annoyance at the presumption, though Raghann was there along with two other old orcs he recognized as Elders of the Shadowed Wood and Cold Spray clans. Clearly, the man was invited. He shuffled closer to listen, forgetting to search for Gairan and his father.

His timing was fortuitous. The human was doubtless central to whatever this meet had been called to discuss, and the discussion itself seemed not underway yet. Even in solemn quiet, the crowd of orcs filing into the amphitheater were talking softly, many giving their guest suspicious looks, and those on the stage were not yet addressing the assembled. Raghann and the human were talking, the other two Elders in conversation with people on the front row.

Then the human shifted to look around at the gathering crowd, and Aresk took an involuntary step forward, clenching his fists. That was not a Punaji. The man was far too pale, not as much as the city-dwelling Sifanese he had seen in Kiyosan, nor as dark as the suntanned travelers who came by Camp Khashrek. With that strangely tawny complexion, and that sharp, high-bridged nose, he resembled descriptions Aresk had heard of…

“Tiraan?” he grated aloud, beginning to feel his pulse rise in fury.

A hand fell heavily on his shoulder.

Aresk rounded on its owner, barely restraining the urge to lash out. Which, as it turned out, was a good thing.

“You made good time, my son,” Arkhosh said, giving him a firm shake by his grip on Aresk’s shoulder. “I hoped your party would return in time to see at least the outcome of this meeting. You haven’t missed anything of consequence.”

“Father!” Aresk barely managed to lower his voice to a pitch suitable for the reverence owed the ceremonial grounds. “Is that man Tiraan?”

Arkhosh’s eyes shifted past him to stare down at the “guest” on stage with the Elders, his face betraying nothing. Aresk knew the deep well of conviction that motivated his father, but Arkhosh was a respected man in the community, and his role as the public voice of the traditionalist faction demanded composure; he never revealed more than he meant to, at least in public.

“That boy,” Arkhosh said in the same soft tone, “is indeed of the Empire. He is an emissary from the Vidians, a speaker for the dead. And as his visit has the backing of the Queen and one of the kitsune, the Elders have agreed to hear him speak. I cast my own vote in favor of hearing him out. Tiraan or no, remember the courtesy owed a guest of the clan.”

Aresk struggled to control himself. Maybe someday he would master his father’s confident self-restraint, but sometimes—like now—he despaired of it. “We are to sit and listen to Tiraan lies?”

Arkhosh shook him again, still gently enough to be affectionate, but clearly making a point. “No one has seen a Tiraan in a hundred years, my son. This one can do little enough harm on his own, and even if his presence is as worthless as I suspect, it costs us nothing and may profit us to see and hear him. Always seek to know your enemy, as best you can. Come, I want you to sit with me at the front.” He paused, then gave Aresk another jostle. “You are a man, a hunter, and a member of the community. I expect you to control yourself, but speak if you see a need, son.”

“Yes, Father,” Aresk said, squaring his shoulders. It would not be his first time sitting at the lowest levels with his father, whose place there had been well-earned, but this invitation to participate was new, and filled him with such emotion it was all he could do to cling to his own composure as he followed Arkhosh down to the front row. With pride, yes, but also trepidation. The thought of embarrassing himself, or worse, his father… What could he say? Would he know what was right to contribute? Maybe it would be better just to remain silent. But after Arkhosh had specifically asked him to speak at need, would that disappoint him?

Aresk’s equilibrium was not helped by what he found at the bottom level. There was an open space, which Arkhosh had clearly kept for them, and right next to it sat Gairan.

She looked up, and the grin of delight that blossomed on her broad features made several of his organs evidently displace themselves. Gairan wore regalia today, he saw, and it suited her amazingly well. Aresk had always thought her pretty, but over the last several times they had met, he had begun to develop the opinion that she was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen.

He was aware that meant he was in real trouble.

“Aresk,” she said as he sat down beside her on the bench, punching his shoulder and setting his chest to an unmanly flutter that he dearly hoped was invisible. “They said you were off hunting! I was afraid I wouldn’t get to see you at this meet.”

“You should be so lucky,” he replied in as close to a casually jocular tone as he could manage. Out of respect for the bones and feathers which draped her robes, he had to content himself with jabbing her with an elbow. If he damaged her formal regalia…well, that was all he needed. “And look at you! A shaman in your own right, now!”

“Just as you’re a hunter,” she replied, baring tusks in a broad grin. In the next moment they both fell silent in the awkwardly sudden awareness that as fully recognized adults, it was about time for them each to be looking for a mate…

Sitting on Aresk’s other side, his father made a sound deep in his throat that could have meant anything. It was only Aresk’s deep, personal respect for him that restrained him from punching the older orc right on the ear.

The spirits continued to bless Aresk’s timing, and he was spared having to sit through any more discomfort. On the stage just in front of him, Mother Raghann had stepped over to the back and struck the hanging bronze bell twice with the head of her staff.

She paused for two heartbeats before striking it twice more, and then did the same a third time. By the end, every orc in the ceremonial grounds had fallen silent and either taken a seat or stood against the outer wall; out of respect for a meeting in progress, those who had not entered in time refrained from crowding through the gates.

The old woman turned back to face them, planting her staff against the ground with a soft thump that was plainly heard in the sudden silence.

“We,” she said, her voice no less strong for the faint creak it had acquired over her long years, “the Elders of the High Wind, the Shadowed Wood, and the Cold Spray clans, have called this meet to hear a request from this visitor.” She lifted her staff again to point at the human, who nodded acknowledgment at her. Not the correct thing to do at that moment, but aside from some faint shuffling in the stands, no one commented. It was not exactly fair to expect this Tiraan to be familiar with their etiquette, and his intent was clearly respectful. “This is Gabriel Arquin, from Tiraas.” Several of the respected members of the community who ranked a seat on the front had to turn around and glare upward to silence the ensuing muttering, including Arkhosh. “He is the Chosen of Vidius, and has been brought here with the blessing of our host, Queen Takamatsu, by the Ancient One Kyomi, to bring us a proposal.”

“Vidius has no Chosen,” scoffed a man Aresk did not know, who by his style of dress and skin color was of the Shadowed Wood. To be invited to sit there in the front, he must have been fairly important in his clan.

Gabriel Arquin glanced at Raghann, who just raised her chin slightly, and Arkesh couldn’t quite repress a sneer. Couldn’t the boy speak for himself?

“He does now,” Arquin said in the next moment, clearly figuring out that nobody was going to hold his hand. “I’m the first. I’m sure that must seem strange, coming out of nowhere like this, but let me just tell you it’s giving me a lot more credit than I’ve earned if you think I managed to trick a kitsune.”

All three Elders on the stage smiled at that, and there were a few chuckles of acknowledgment from the crowd.

Arquin drew in a breath, and subtly squared his shoulders—a gesture Aresk might have missed, had he not been peering at the human with a hunter’s intensity. Chosen or not, the boy was nervous. Well, so much the better. Any member of his demented, murdering nation should be, showing his face here. Arquin shifted his left hand to the hilt of his sword, and Aresk’s eyes fixed on that. Not the hand he would use to draw it, but still…

“I’ve come with a proposal,” the human said when the soft amusement faded. “I am not going to make you a promise, because I honestly don’t know if this will work. But I believe it should be tried. I have consulted with my cult and with that of Salyrene about the feasibility of this, and both believe it is…possible. It will require the participation of your clans, however. Not just for your unique, ah…perspective, but because it should be your right to determine whether this proceeds at all.”

“Enough waffling, boy,” a Cold Spray woman in the front row said. “Spit it out. What is it you want to do?”

Arquin shifted again, once more straightening his shoulders, though Aresk was still watching his sword. There was something there… His concentration was broken by the Chosen’s next words, however.

“I want to heal Athan’Khar.”

All respect for the solemnity of the ceremonial grounds was lost in the hubbub that erupted. A lot was general confusion and disbelief, but there was plenty of negatory hissing, as well as the approving stomping of feet. Gairan’s feet were among those exuberantly slammed against the ground, Aresk noted with a pang.

Raghann whipped her staff around and whacked at the bell until there was silence again. Neither she nor the other two Elders looked surprised. Of course, they had cooked this up between them; they wouldn’t have brought this human here unless they knew exactly what this was all about.

“There are indications that the land is beginning to heal naturally,” Arquin said. “The corruption is receding, and by this time the forest seems completely natural for almost a mile south of the river border. Humans don’t go there, obviously, but gnomes have reported on the state of the country. The monsters within Athan’Khar are growing less aggressive, too. It’s been forty years since any crossed the river without specific provocation.”

“What is that?” Aresk demanded suddenly, pointing. His father and Gairan both turned their heads to frown at him.

Arquin turned to him too, blinking. “What’s…what?”

“Your sword,” Aresk said, deliberately not looking at anything but the human. Maybe if he couldn’t actually see the entire crowd staring at him, the self-consciousness wouldn’t crush him bodily… “The one your hand is on. There’s light flickering at the edge of the scabbard. Are you doing magic?”

An unpleasant murmur rose from several directions.

“Oh,” Arquin said hastily, “don’t worry, that’s—”

“Remember where you are, boy,” Arkhosh rumbled. “You don’t tell us not to worry when a Tiraan is doing surreptitious arcane magic at us.”

“If I could explain?” Arquin said, frowning in annoyance. As much as Aresk wanted to take offense on behalf of his father, Arkhosh had interrupted, and this was the first time the human had shown some proper spine. In the next moment he tensed, reflexively reaching for his hunting knife, when Arquin fully drew the sword.

It was not, as he had thought, one of the scimitars the Punaji often carried. The curve of the blade was almost serpentine. Aside from its gleaming cutting edge, the blade itself was black, and lined with symbols which pulsed blue in time with its master’s voice.

“Ariel is a kind of all-purpose magical aid,” the human explained. “In this case, she is translating. I don’t actually speak either Sifanese or Kharsa; the magic lets me communicate.”

“You call your sword a she?” the Shadowed Wood man from earlier said in a dry tone. There was some gruff laughter from the stands, till Raghann raised her staff menacingly toward the bell.

“She is a talking sword,” Arquin replied flatly, returning the weapon to its sheath. “Her voice is feminine. And she is under strict instructions not to talk here because she’s rude and generally obnoxious.”

Arkhosh patted Aresk’s shoulder, leaning toward him to murmur, “Well spotted, son.”

Aresk could not help straightening his back in pride, and then further when Gairan gave him a warm smile.

“Back to the point, then,” said Takhran, the second-eldest member of the High Wind clan after Raghann. “How is it you propose to heal Athan’Khar? And why would you suddenly decide to do this?”

“The why is simply because it should be done,” Arquin said firmly. “I don’t know that anybody needs a reason beyond that. The how is the complicated part, at least potentially. As I said up front, I’m proposing to try; I can’t be sure how well this would work. Cleansing corruption is fairly straightforward according to several magical disciplines; the problem in Athan’Khar is that the corruption is sentient, and angry.”

“And wouldn’t you be?” someone shouted from the back. Nobody that distant from the position of honor near the stage should have interrupted the meeting, and indeed there was an immediate scuffle as the speaker was pounded by his neighbors. From around the amphitheater, though, several feet were stomped in agreement.

“Absolutely,” said Arquin. “That’s not in question. Justified or not, though, the twisted and enraged state of the spirits in Athan’Khar has to be incredibly painful for them, and I don’t think they should be left in that condition, not if they can be helped. Wouldn’t you want to be?”

“Why now?” Takhran asked.

“There was never a Chosen of Vidius before now,” Gairan said before Arquin could answer. The human turned to her and nodded in respect, giving the young shaman a small smile.

Aresk couldn’t quite put words to the emotion that rose in his throat, but he was not enjoying it.

“The problem, then,” Arquin continued, “is trying to heal a land that actively fights you in the process. My cult has some experience in dealing with angry spirits, and will help in any and every way possible. That won’t be enough, though. There are very few Vidians who aren’t human, relatively speaking, and even if I could get every elf, gnome, and dwarven cleric of the cult to work at this, they still wouldn’t be orcs. Not being immediately attacked by the spirits is not the same as getting them to cooperate. It’s very likely that your shaman are the only people the spirits of Athan’Khar will even listen to. There are many ways the followers of Vidius and Salyrene can facilitate this, and we will do everything we can, but it must be shaman of the clans who take the lead.”

“And your Empire?” Arkhosh demanded. “Are we to believe Tiraas will just sit passively and let Athan’Khar be restored? You suggest we should send our shaman to be exposed to Tiraan assassination in what you acknowledge might be a vain hope!”

There was both hissing and stomping in response; Raghann hefted her staff, but quiet fell again before she could strike the bell.

“First, we have to try,” Arquin answered. “If this doesn’t work, it won’t matter. But if it does, if we can raise a real prospect of restoring Athan’Khar and returning the clans to their home, it’s very likely the Empire will bend its resources to help.”

That time, Raghann had to sound the bell repeatedly to stifle the uproar, and it took more than a few seconds.

“What do you think, Aresk?” Arkhosh asked quietly, his voice disguised by the noise.

“I don’t trust a Tiraan saying things that are obviously too good to be true,” Aresk answered.

His father’s faint smile said he shared that doubt. “I mean, of him.”

Aresk hesitated, narrowing his eyes, conscious of Gairan watching him from the other side and listening. “He…speaks well, father. Straightforward. The Sifanese hide everything behind formality and the Punaji play about like children. It bothers me, the thought that of the human nations we know it’s the Tiraan who are most like orcs.”

“Don’t judge any clan by one individual, let alone a nation that size,” Arkhosh murmured, “and never judge an individual by what he says when he wants something.”

“Yes, father.”

Silence finally fell again, and they had to cut the conversation short. Arquin had stood still throughout, and Aresk had to respect his composure; even the faint signs of nervousness he’d shown before had melted away. Now, he was simply waiting for quiet so he could continue.

“I gather you don’t know a lot about our history,” the human said at last.

“You presume a lot, boy,” Arkhosh replied, “if you think we care about your history.”

Feet were stomped in agreement, but this time Arquin continued without waiting for order to restore itself. “It matters, here. The last your people knew of the continent, you were rescued by the Silver Legions and then the kitsune brought you here. Am I right?”

“Yes,” Raghann said simply. “Go on.”

Arquin nodded. “If you haven’t followed word from Tiraas after that, you may not know that the Empire tore itself apart after the Enchanter’s Bane was used. That was no great triumph; every human nation reacted with horror at the atrocity of it. Every province rose up in rebellion. Tiraas itself was so beset with riots that the Emperor had to impose martial law, and even that didn’t work. By the time rebel forces had converged on the capital, his own government had collapsed due to the Sisters of Avei fighting Imperial guards for control of the city and the Thieves’ Guild assassinating every official of the civilian government they could reach. No one in the Tiraan Empire is proud of what we did to your people. Even now, it’s remembered as our greatest shame. At the time, it completely broke the Empire.”

The murmuring that rose up was more subdued than before. Aresk sat bolt upright on his bench, trying to digest that. How much of it could be true? Then again, why would the Chosen lie?

The worst part was the realization that if Arquin spoke the truth, the clans had all but condemned themselves by refusing to hear emissaries from Tiraas for the last hundred years. In withdrawing into Tsurikura to rebuild their strength, they would have wasted who knew how many opportunities to return home and try to rebuild already…if this account was right.

“And yet, there is an Empire now,” Arkhosh said with naked skepticism. “Because we have not accepted visitors from Tiraas does not mean we all live under rocks, boy. There is plenty of talk in Sifan about the looming menace of the Tiraan Empire.”

“You’re correct,” Arquin replied. “There is a Tiraan Empire, but it’s not the same one. It was put back together, piece by piece, in the years following the war. It uses as much of the same symbolism and pageantry of the original as it can, because that’s a way for the people in power to stay in power. But structurally? It almost doesn’t compare. The Emperor can’t just do whatever he wants anymore; his power is checked by the noble Houses. The Army itself is constrained by law to consist of one-third levies from House guards, which means they can put a cap on how many forces he has at his disposal. The provincial governments have a great deal more internal sovereignty. The Universal Church is far more powerful, and has a lot of sway with the public—the Archpope can give a sermon and turn a lot of people against the Silver Throne. Tiraas has no navy at all; the Empire relies on treaties with the Punaji and the Tidestrider clans to secure its coasts. And above all, everyone remembers Athan’Khar. The last Imperial dynasty was brought down by the outrage of the public, and Emperor Sharidan doesn’t dare forget that. If anything, he is more vulnerable to being ripped off his throne if he oversteps than the last dynasty were. The idea of waging war on the orcs… It’s laughable, frankly. It would enrage a big swath of the Empire’s citizens, and send most of Sharidan’s political enemies circling like vultures for a chance to take him down.

“There’s another side to that coin,” Arquin continued, raising his voice slightly above the ensuing mutters until they faded. “Sharidan’s very first action as Emperor was to form a treaty with the drow of Tar’naris.”

“No one forms treaties with drow!” exclaimed the Shadowed Wood dignitary who kept finding fault with everything the human said.

“That treaty is real,” said Takhran. “That much, even I have heard.”

“Not all drow are alike,” Arquin agreed. “Not even all Themynrites. Just because nobody can deal diplomatically with the Nathloi doesn’t mean we can’t with Narisians—and I don’t know enough about Sifanese politics to guess, but the lack of a treaty with Nathloss may just mean it hasn’t been tried. Tar’naris and the Empire get along quite well, now. One of my best friends is Narisian, and she’s easily the most rational person I know. The point is, the Narisian Treaty is one of the most popular things the Empire has done in recent years, even though it involves committing Imperial troops to help hold their Scyllithene border. Sharidan has not only proved he’s willing to offer a hand to former enemies; he’s learned there’s a big political advantage in it for him.

“I don’t work for the Imperial government,” Arquin said, once again pressing on despite muttering around him. “I can’t promise anything about what the Silver Throne will do; everything I have to say on that subject is my opinion as an informed citizen. And I certainly didn’t come here to sell the Empire to you. Having grown up in the thing, I think it’s better for its people than either anarchy or warring feudal states, and I think Sharidan Tirasian is reasonable and more inclined to be helpful than he is to be difficult. That’s about the extent of my patriotism. If you’re still too disgusted at the idea of dealing with Tiraas to even try, then…I guess there’s nothing more to talk about, there. But since the Empire did this to your people, if they can be persuaded to foot the bill for cleaning it up, well…that seems fair, to me.”

That earned him a round of exuberant stomping, though Arkhosh quickly retorted, “None of which matters if your whole idea proves to be unworkable in the first place.”

“Yes,” Arquin agreed. “I think involving the Empire would be a bad idea unless we can be certain this is doable.”

“Very well,” Arkhosh replied, “you’ve talked a lot of grand concepts. Heal Athan’Khar, make peace. What, specifically, are you proposing to do? What do you need from us, and what do you offer? The journey to Athan’Khar is a very long one to make on the basis of such limited prospects, Deathspeaker.”

“I’m offering the services of myself and my valkyrie allies to aid in contacting the spirits in whatever way is necessary,” said Arquin. More murmuring swelled up at that; the aid of soul reapers was not a small thing. “I have also secured the assistance of Salyrite scholars to deal with the magic involved. What I propose, in this specific case, is a small team; we are looking to ascertain whether this can be done, remember, not heal the whole of Athan’Khar right away. It’s barely a beginning. To that end, we will need the help of at least one orcish shaman. I would suggest maybe two or three, but you know your business better than I. And as for the trip, I am given to understand that it will only be a journey of a day or two.”

Raghann struck the bell to silence the widespread scoffing that ensued.

“Let us not dismiss anything without thought,” Arkhosh agreed, turning to stare at the crowd. “We have heard some surprising things today. I’m sure the Deathspeaker, who has been so careful not to make promises he can’t keep, would not say such things without reason. How, then,” he asked, turning back to Arquin, “do you propose to reach Athan’Khar from Tsurikura in two days?”

“With my help.”

She had not been there before; she did not appear. It was simply as if she had always been part of the scenery, and everyone only now noticed. The kitsune stood nimbly atop the bell itself, balanced on her toes; she wore a black kimono that matched the color of her ears and tail, with a plain katana and wakizashi thrust through her sash.

Immediately, every orc in the place surged to their feet and then knelt in respect, save the three Elders on the stage. Arquin, who had turned to her without evident surprise, looked rapidly back and forth at the prostrate orcs in bafflement.

“I do not do this to rush you away, honored guests,” Kyomi said with a gracious little smile, inclining her head. “You have been good neighbors and good caretakers for this piece of our realm. The clans of Athan’Khar have been offered welcome in Sifan, and it shall not be rescinded, so long as your good stewardship continues. But it is a painful thing, to be cut off from one’s history, and my sisters and I are pleased to help you in recovering it, if we may.”

She hopped lightly down to the ground, whereupon the Elders bowed deeply to her. After a confused pause, Arquin did likewise.

“So, before committing great effort to this task, I call a band of heroes to see whether it can be done. Raghann, daughter of Aghren, Elder and chief shaman of the High Wind clan, you shall lead it with your wisdom and experience. Gabriel Arquin, who has brought us this chance and presents its best hope, will of course go. As this is a quest for the future of the orcish people, the young should have a place as well. And so two more will join them, a shaman and a hunter. Of the Cold Spray clan, Gairan, daughter of Grensha.”

Aresk thought for certain his heart couldn’t pound any harder or higher in his throat than at that announcement. The kitsune’s very next words proved him wrong.

“And of the High Wind clan, Aresk, son of Arkhosh.”

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